NORTH HAVEN — The fire department is making a push to support its budget request, believing the proposal has been unfairly scrutinized by some residents and town officials this budget season.
"The (fire service) members in general are all just growing tired of the politicizing of the fire department and what's turned into basically everything we do is just being questioned," Fire Chief Paul Januszewski, backed by roughly two dozen fire fighters, said during an April 2 public hearing.
Januszewki said the group of mostly volunteer firefighters, as well as some career ones, decided on their own to come to the hearing and show solidarity with the department.
"They actually asked to be here tonight and they actually asked to wear their uniforms," Januszewski said. "They came on their own free will, 100 percent.”
The proposed 2019-20 budget, approved by the Board of Finance last month, totals $103,785,950, a 4.9 percent increase from the current fiscal year's $98.9 million budget. The annual town budget meeting is scheduled for May 13 at 7 p.m. at the high school and the referendum will take place May 21.
At the April 2 hearing, First Selectman Michael Freda and Superintendent of Schools Patrick Stirk made brief presentations and then the floor was open to residents for public comment.
Several of the firefighters and fire commission members defended their chief's $5.1 million proposal, a 14 percent, or $634,518 increase from the previous year. Capital expenses for the department total about $658,000, according to fFnance Director Edward Swinkoski.
The proposal includes the hiring of two new career firefighters, who would start next January, and the acquisition of a used ladder truck.
West Ridge Co. 3 volunteer Stephen Irons took the opportunity to walk residents through a night of volunteer firefighting to give voters context.
He said fire personnel do the work primarily as a service to the town, but the job can be boring and tedious for long stretches and suddenly terrifying and dangerous at random intervals.
"As a result, we don't tend to complain too loudly when a fire engine gets old or our gear get's a little tattered," Irons said. "We just want rigorous training, the proper equipment, and to be at the fire when we're needed."
Irons said that by volunteers will be more enticed to continue serving, reducing the need to pay professionals, if residents support a budget that includes a new apparatus and other equipment.
Third Selectman Sally Buemi said although she supports the fire department, she is not in favor of the budget proposal and would like to see it cut, along with other areas of the budget.
Buemi also said claims that she has "picked on" the fire department more than other town departments is false, as she has fought others like public works and the board of education in the past.
"I am not against the fire department,” Buemi said. “I have supported every purchase of fire apparatus since I joined the board of selectmen and I'm sick of hearing how the fire department is always picked on, that only the fire department is scrutinized so closely and criticized for their requests.”
Resident Nancy Barrett also expressed opposition to the fire department's budget, wishing to see an increase in paramedics instead of firefighters, whom she would want added to the Monday through Friday day shift and driving "fly cars," non-transporting EMS vehicles.
"We do not need a crew of firefighter EMT's putting 12,000 miles per year on expensive, inefficient, water filled pumper engines or ladder trucks lumbering across town to respond to medical calls," Barrett said.
Other residents unaffiliated with the fire department voiced support for the proposal.
Jennifer Caldwell said firefighters' quick response to a fire in her apartment saved her pets' lives and is concerned knowing that the firehouse near her home is understaffed.
"I'm glad we're adding two firefighters, but I heard from the chief that we need more than that and I would really like for the town to take a good look at our budget,” she said. “… One of the top budget priorities should be to have safety in our town.”
Board of Education member Amanda Gabriele also spoke in favor of keeping the fire department by bringing the discussion to the core of what funding emergency services means to the taxpayers.
"I like living, living is my favorite and I fully support this budget because I'd like to continue living," she said.
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