Would Deerfield’s 2 fire districts ever merge?

  • The Old Deerfield Fire Station.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • The South Deerfield Fire Station.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

DEERFIELD — For at least 65 years, Deerfield has had two fire districts, one at each end of town.

While the two volunteer departments serve one town, they provide coverage to two different communities with different tax bases and funding sources and histories.

The Old Deerfield Fire District serves the Old Deerfield village, East Deerfield and West Deerfield while the South Deerfield Fire District serves the southern part of town.

The differences have largely kept the two fire districts separate and distinct despite attempts in the past to explore the consolidation of the two.

But when asked whether they would support a merger at some point in the future, many current Deerfield officials were amendable to the idea and some even suggested a formation of a regional fire and ambulance system.

“I would like to see the town come together as one, combine the fire districts, incorporate into the single fire department, and ultimately have one public safety entity,” said Deerfield Police Chief John Paciorek Jr.

There have been no official discussions of the idea recently.

The town visited the issue several times in the past, always without resolution.

In 2006, town meeting authorized a new Emergency Services Review Committee “to study the coordination between and potential consolidation of fire protection and emergency medical services within the town of Deerfield.” By the end of the study in 2007, the committee — made up of selectmen, Deerfield EMTs, finance committee members and prudential committee members from the two fire districts — agreed that any consolidation was a complicated issue and chose not to move forward.

The four nonprofits centered in Old Deerfield — Deerfield Academy, Bement School, Eaglebrook School and Historic Deerfield — raised the question again most recently during discussions over partly funding a $250,000 fire truck this month.

Over the next year, the Old Deerfield Fire District plans to develop long term plans moving forward. Part of that re-evaluation is a possible discussion of a merger.

“I would hope that the two prudential committees could come together and have a conversation,” Old Deerfield Prudential Committee member Patricia Kelly recently said.

Perceived drawbacks

The 2007 report of the Emergency Services Committee provided five disadvantages of merging the two fire districts — most of which are still cited by some Deerfield officials today.

“At the time, South Deerfield wasn’t interested because they didn’t want to be saddled with the nonprofits,” said Old Deerfield Prudential Committee member, Pat O’Bryan, who served on the committee. “As far as Old Deerfield, they were concerned about how the service would be supplied. These guys on the fire department would be counting on someone else to provide fire protection. Everyone was concerned.”

The reasons included that the newer South Deerfield fire station is not strategically located to adequately serve the needs of Old Deerfield, which would require the two fire stations to continue to exist or the construction of a new firehouse. There could also be an increased cost to man and maintain the two fire districts.

Another major reason for the status quo was that about 45 percent of the Deerfield Fire District property is owned by nonprofits while 7 percent of the South Deerfield Fire District property is nontaxable and South Deerfield’s tax base is about 3.5 times greater.

The advantages of consolidation, however, include standardized equipment, policies and fire inspection services, and the minimization of administrative redundancy.

Political will aside, a merger of the two fire districts would be complicated. The two districts are separate government entities from the town with their own taxes and budgets. Annual meetings of the two fire districts would have to vote to dissolve the existing fire districts and vote to create a new one. Special legislation, supported by the state Legislature and governor, is also required.

There are two ways to accomplish a merger. The first would be to dissolve the fire districts and create a fire department, which would be an agency with the Town of Deerfield. In 2006, the emergency services review committee argued that there was no advantage to this because it would create “another town department that would compete for the 30 percent or less of the remaining town budget after the schools’ requests have been met.”

The second way would be to create a townwide fire district which would maintain its autonomy, shielding itself from Proposition 2 1/ 2 limitations.

The ultimate solution, the report stated, was the eventual conversion to full-time paid staff, similar to Turners Falls Fire Department.

Support

Despite the past concerns that continue to exist, many Deerfield officials supported the idea of a merger in the future.

“It would be tough because of the tax base in Old Deerfield,” South Deerfield Prudential Committee member Kevin Scarborough said. “We’d be increasing services with no additional money.

“But anything is possible. If something was brought to the Prudential Committee, we’d discuss it,” Scarborough said.

John Paciorek Sr., a former South Deerfield prudential committee member, supported a merger.

“At some point they should merge the two districts to save the hassle they go through in running two districts,” Paciorek Sr. said. “I think (the prudential committees) would consider it if there was an initiative out there to push for consolidation.”

If the two districts decided a consolidation is what they want, Selectman Mark Gilmore said he would “definitely support it.

“If they decided to join as one, I think it would be beneficial to the town and both organizations,” Gilmore said.

Eventually, said Selectman Carolyn Shores Ness, who served on the 2006 review committee, the two districts will get together.

“I would support it. It’s part of the natural evolution,” Ness said.

Right now, Ness said both departments have committed volunteers, but at some point, the town may have to hire full-time staff.

Regardless, Business Manager at Bement School Kenneth Cuddeback said the Old Deerfield Fire District “meets the needs for fire protection in this area. It currently provides adequate protection for Bement School.”

Old Deerfield Fire Chief Chet Yazwinski declined to comment for this story. South Deerfield Fire Chief Bill Swasey could not be reached for comment.

That the two fire districts have different tax bases is an impediment.

“One of the facts that came out of that was that this district is money poor, people rich. South Deerfield is money rich, people poor,” O’Bryan said. “How’d that shake up in the end, I don’t know. Things could change in South Deerfield. Things could change here.”

The total South Deerfield district budget is $423,445. The tax is 72 cents per $1,000.

The Old Deerfield Fire District runs on a slim $80,000. The tax is 40 cents per $1,000. It rents its fire house from Historic Deerfield for $1.

The small budget is due to the makeup of the district. The nonprofit institutions are exempt from paying property taxes. While the nonprofits make up a large portion of the tax base — about $204,080,818 or 58 percent of the total value of property — the fire district doesn’t see that money. It effectively cuts the district’s potential revenue source in half. The district receives $143,922,544 or 41.4 percent from the taxpayers.

Old Deerfield covers three schools with students and faculty living on campus 24 hours, seven days a week. It also contends with the East Deerfield Rail Yard, where there is no infrastructure for firefighting.

Old Deerfield has many potential problems that in the past, South Deerfield did not want to take on, O’Bryan said.

“You can understand the potential. South Deerfield thought they couldn’t provide adequate coverage to that area without maintaining a crew and station there,” O’Bryan said.

Regional public safety

In the past, a consolidation of the two fire districts and ambulance services into one public safety agency had also been discussed. The new regional South County EMS changes that picture. Some Deerfield officials, however, still believe a regional joint fire and EMS service could be possible some day.

“I said for years that the fire department should take over the EMS,” Paciorek Sr. said. “I firmly believe that EMS is a natural supplement to firefighting.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the South County EMS is so successful, we’d look at a regional fire. It would make sense to run it with the EMS. You’d have to study it,” Ness said.

The makeup of the two districts is a major consideration as well.

The volunteer makeup of the two departments could also motivate a merger.

Unlike the past, more people work farther from town and had more time to volunteer. Training was also less stringent.

For the districts to outfit volunteer firefighters, it costs $3,000 and there is no guarantee the volunteer will stay on past training.

“For us to spend $3,000 on an $80,000 budget, it hurts,” O’Bryan said.

The situation may be changing, however, as the nonprofits become more willing to contribute to the Old Deerfield Fire District by volunteering.

“I do know that it seems we entered into a new phase with the nonprofits,” O’Bryan said. “There has been some changes in the administration. The attitudes have changed from the past.”

O’Bryan said many Deerfield Academy administrators seem open to the idea of allowing staff to volunteer on the fire department.

“We’re looking at how they could be more involved and not just with their wallets,” O’Bryan.

Deerfield Academy is the biggest employer in the fire district. O’Bryan said he has had conversations with the school to see how they can facilitate more volunteering.

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