, Newburyport, MA

October 9, 2013

Selectmen place 'strong chief' article on fall warrant


---- — WEST NEWBURY — The question of how best to run the town’s call fire department is heating up again just in time for a Special Town Meeting next month.

During a review of a draft of the special warrant at the board’s regular Monday night session, Selectman Joe Anderson proposed including an article asking voters to adopt the state’s “strong chief” law, a statute that provides for the restructuring of the fire department’s leadership from a Board of Fire Engineers format to one that is run solely by a fire chief.

Selectmen Chairman Bert Knowles Jr. agreed with Anderson that the request should be included on the warrant for the Nov. 4 Special Town Meeting. However, their colleague, Glenn Kemper — who had recently spoken against bringing it to Town Meeting voters this fall — was not present for the vote.

The board will finalize the articles appearing on the special warrant at a meeting with the town moderator and Finance Committee on Oct. 15. Selectmen’s meeting are typically held at 7 p.m. in the First Floor Hearing Room of the 1910 Town Office Building.

A similar suggestion made by Knowles at a meeting last month was rejected by Kemper, who said he preferred to let the Board of Fire Engineers look into the matter further before bring it to Town Meeting floor. At the time, Anderson agreed with Kemper.

But after a couple weeks’ reflection, Anderson said on Monday that he had changed his mind. While he regretted Kemper wasn’t present to weigh in with his thoughts on the topic, Anderson felt the pending deadline to close the warrant made it necessary for him to make a motion that night to add it to the agenda for the November Town Meeting.

He had concluded that because it remained unclear what action — if any — the fire engineers were planning to take in this regard, he saw no reason to wait six more months just to take it up at the Annual Town Meeting in April.

Knowles said it was unlikely fire engineers would vote to take an action that could result in the dismantling of their board. Ultimately, it was up to voters — not the fire board — to decide how they wanted the town’s fire department to be run, he said.

Anderson also endorsed a plan to tap the Free Cash account if Town Meeting voters OK a request for $32,368 to purchase a 2014 police cruiser. He said that going forward he felt this type of expense should be included in the annual budget, but paying it from Free Cash this year made sense because he believes that account is running a little high right now anyway.

The town currently has $1.7 million in its Free Cash account, but Anderson said that according to accepted financial practice, that number should fall more in the $700,000 to $900,000 range.

“We’re over-taxing because our free cash is too high ... we should be spending it down,” he said.

The current draft of the warrant also includes several proposed zoning bylaw changes, including amendments to the Groundwater Protection Overlay District map and the Site Plan Review bylaw, and the adoption of a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana treatment centers and registered dispensaries.

Voters may be asked to accept as a gift the Soldiers and Sailors Edward Memorial, also known as the American Legion Hall, located 359 Main St. Due to dwindling membership and a fiscal inability to meet the building’s maintenance and repair needs, the Charles L. Carr Post, owners of the building, recently voted to turn it over to the town. The Gothic revival structure was built over a century ago to commemorate the Civil War.

Selectmen are working with the Community Preservation Committee to locate a previously conducted cost analysis to renovate the aging building, which they hope to present to voters at Town Meeting.

“I just want to go on record about this potential purchase,” Anderson said on Monday. “I would vote to allow it to go on as a warrant article, but personally my vote would be not to accept it.”