, Newburyport, MA

June 17, 2013

Selectmen study age limit for firefighters

Current practice violates state law, board told

By Jennifer Solis

---- — NEWBURY — Selectmen are reviewing the town’s policy that allows firefighters to stay on active duty until they are 70 years old, in light of an opinion by the town counsel that the practice is contrary to state law.

The town’s lawyer, Ginny Kremer, told the board last week that Newbury faces a possible liability if it continues its practice of employing firefighters after they turn 65 years old. According to state statute, if a municipal employee’s job title is “fireman,” then he or she “must retire at age 65,” Kremer said.

Even if in practice the person does not actually fight fires, if it is in his or her job description, “that’s where the problem is,” she said.

But Selectman Michael Bulgaris contends that the few employees who fall into this category are far more of an asset to the department than a liability. Bulgaris said he is working with local state legislators to explore the possibility of seeking a waiver from the state to allow Newbury’s independent fire companies to continue operating as they currently do.

Bulgaris, who turns 70 this year and so will retire as a town firefighter, said that the older fire personnel provide critical leadership and experience to younger firefighters, who are the personnel actually doing the fire suppression in most cases.

He argued that the current policy has worked well for more than 100 years and changing it would “put a tremendous hardship” on the department and the town.

Fire Chief William Pearson noted that the town’s insurance company has no age limit on its coverage for his personnel.

Bulgaris called Newbury’s firefighting program “a model for the whole state” and said he objected to turning away knowledgeable personnel just because they hit a particular birthday milestone.

He said he plans to meet with the Board of Fire Engineers and get its recommendation and the selectmen will continue the discussion at the July 9 meeting.

But ultimately, Bulgaris said, he believes, “if the law isn’t right, maybe it’s time to change the law.”

Other matters

The Board of Selectmen voted on several annual appointments, except for the reappointment of Larry Guay to the Finance Committee. Before he is reseated, Bulgaris requested that Guay come before the board to discuss “why he is having so much trouble with the fire department.”

Bulgaris said another member of the Finance Committee told him that recent conflicts between the finance board and firefighters were instigated by Guay.

Town Administrator Tracy Blais told the board that she is looking into whether the town owes money for greenhead fly boxes that were installed on Plum Island last year even though they were not specifically requested by the town. The last appropriation made for this purpose was $2,900 in 2011.

At the end of the open session, Bulgaris commented on what “a great day” the recent commencement ceremony for Triton Regional High School was. He credited Superintendent Christopher Farmer with playing a key role in the improved relationship between the town and the school district.

Selectmen then went behind closed doors with Kremer, police Chief Michael Reilly and clam warden Charlie Colby to discuss strategy with respect to litigation and “complaints brought against a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.”