On Tuesday, February 19, Fire District # 2 (Cavendish) had its annual meeting, which included election of members to the Prudential Board (the governing body of the fire district) and adopting a budget for the coming year.Approximately 30 people were in attendance.
At the March 12, 2018 Cavendish Select Board (SB) meeting, Stuart Lindberg of Fire District #2 (Cavendish) Prudential Board informed the SB that due to low numbers of volunteers, the Cavendish Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) was considering closing.
He explained that finding volunteers for fire departments is a problem all over the country and at this point, CVFD was unable to secure the volunteers to run a service. They had five active volunteers at that time, with volunteers from previous years having aged out, moved away or find they have other demands on their time.
Lindberg had been researching this and talking to various people at the state and in the legislature, learning it was a multi step process including voters, fire departments, the town’s lawyer and even the legislature. Lindberg said finances, equipment and the building are in good order and are the property of Fire District # 2. He also noted that he was just one person and he couldn’t shoulder this alone.
At this year’s Annual Meeting, the voters of Fire District 2 picked up on Lindberg’s SB meeting comments and spent considerable time discussing a merger to create one fire district for the town.
Among those offering information and comments was Selectmen Mark Huntley who explained several facts that many were unaware of:
• Cavendish property taxes-town wide- are at least double of similar size towns in the area. Mt Holly/Belmont provides fire, rescue and emergency response (they have their own ambulance) for $100,000. It should be noted that it wasn’t clear if the Mt. Holly Rescue Squad (Ambulance) was covered in the $100,000 as this squad covers Mt. Holly, Belmont and East Wallingford. In comparison: Fire District #2 (Cavendish) adopted a budget of $81,995 at their meeting Tuesday night. Ludlow Ambulance is requesting $37,500 (part of the town budget to be voted on at Town Meeting) and Fire District #1 (Proctorsville) , while still finalizing its budget, probably has a budget over $100,000.
• Property owners in Fire District #1 (Proctorsville) pay more in fire taxes than those in Fire District # 2 (Cavendish).
• Between both fire districts, the town of Cavendish has more fire fighting equipment than the city of Rutland.
The issue of one fire department has been discussed for many years, with an informal vote in favor of one fire District being taken at Town Meeting in 2005. This was followed by a petition, where again the voters requested one department. This petition was to the Select Board. However, because fire districts are their own unique municipality, the Select Board could not take any action on the petition, as they have no jurisdiction over them.
Learn more about Cavendish Fire District History and the events leading up to discussion at a Fire District #2 meeting in November 2015 about mergers at Town of Cavendish Fire Districts History.
In years past, concerns of losing rank, name of the fire department and other issues seemed to block merger discussions. However, this time various people commented that they weren’t concerned about these issues but rather wanted to do what was in the best interest of the town.
The moderator for the meeting, Abraham Gross, read aloud the comments and procedure recommendations from Sarah Jarvis, the staff attorney for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) about how to proceed.
There is no state law that specifically addresses “dissolving” a district. The only statutory provision is via merger between two extant districts. In short, Fire District #2 (Cavendish) can’t “just dissolve” but rather needs to merge with Fire District #1 (Proctorsville).
Atty. Jarvis cited the VLCT Handbook for Vermont Selectboards, which lays out the steps of the process as follows:
a) The legislative bodies of each party to the merger must prepare a plan of merger, which must be approved by a majority of each body. 24 V.S.A. § 1482. A plan of merger includes, among other things, provisions relating to structure, organization, functions, operation, finance, and property of the fire district. (per 24 V.S.A. § 1483)
b.) The plan of merger must be approved by a majority vote by Australian ballot of each municipality concerned at a meeting duly warned for that purpose and held in each such municipality. 24 V.S.A. § 1485(a). Not fewer than 30 days prior to the meeting, copies of the plan of merger must be posted in three or more places in each of the areas involved.
In addition, two public hearings in each of the areas involved must be held, at intervals of two weeks, the last of which shall be held not less than five days before the meeting at which the vote will be held. Notice of the hearings must be advertised in accordance with 24 V.S.A. § 1484.
c.) Within ten days after the municipalities have voted to adopt a plan of merger, the clerk or equivalent officer of the municipality into which merger has taken place must notify the Secretary of State of the merger. 24 V.S.A. § 1486.
Gross made it clear that CVFD volunteers are very much in favor of a merger. The issue “doesn’t reside with this end of town,” he said.
Cavendish and Proctorsville operate with “automatic response,” which means they are both “toned out” for incidents in either district. According to information provided by each fire district, Fire District #1 (Proctorsville) has 23 volunteer fire fighters and 12 junior fire fighters and in 2018 responded to 128 calls, with medical assistance (44 calls) being the leading reason for calls. Fire District #2 (Cavendish) reports having 8 fire fighter volunteers and responded to 107 calls, with medical assistance (61) being the leading reason for calls.
While questions exist about the best way to move forward, one of the steps is hiring an attorney to work with the town and prudential boards to insure the legality of further proceedings.