Pingree fire district tries referendum for 3rd time

The Pingree Grove & Countryside Fire District will be asking voters, for the third consecutive time, to approve borrowing $8.5 million to build two new fire stations.

The district has three fire stations, two of which - Station 2 on Rippburger Road and Station 4 on Plank Road - would be closed and sold if voters say "yes" to the referendum question on the Nov. 6 election ballot. New stations would be built on Highland Avenue just east of Coombs Road, and on Dittman Road about one-third mile south of Plato Road.

The bond issue would yield a property tax increase of $89 for a house with a $300,000 market value, Fire Chief Mitch Crocetti said. That's $1 less than the tax increase projected in April and $28 less than projected in April 2017, the first time voters rejected the proposal. The lower amount is due to the district's growth and expanding tax base, Crocetti said.

The board, however, was split in a 3-2 vote to place the question on the ballot, according to minutes from a special meeting in July. The dissenting trustees, Todd Harris and Karel Jones, favored an estimated $6.9 million plan proposed by Harris to remodel Station 4 and build a new station on Dittman Road, Crocetti said.

Harris declined to comment.

"At that time I felt we could have probably, maybe, used less money," Jones said. "I grew up with a father who was a young man during the Great Depression and I come from that mindset, where you ... take the old and patch it up."

However, marshland precludes building more additions to Station 4, Crocetti said. "We would have to tear down most of the building and rebuild it - and it still would be in the wrong location."

Crocetti said the district - which already purchased the land on Dittman Road for about $379,000 - spent a long time putting together a strategic plan about optimal locations for fire stations. "We looked at the response times and the population densities, and we based our decisions based on that study," he said.

Board President John Payson agreed.

"We need to serve our population where it is and where it will be," Payson said. "As far as being a trustee, it's my responsibility as a taxpayer to spend their money wisely, and in my mind, this is what I really think we're doing."

The district, which has a $3.6 million budget, employs four full-time firefighters and 43 part-timers, and wants to hire more to replace some who've left since the spring, Crocetti said. The full-timers recently unionized but haven't presented a contract proposal yet, Crocetti said.

Calls for service continue to grow, according to district data. There were 803 calls through August compared to 703 in the same time period last year; Crocetti said he projects 150 more calls overall this year compared to 2017.

"We're going to continue (placing referendum questions on the ballot) until the voters say 'yes' or until we do it, until we save enough money without the voters, without the bond," Crocetti said. "It's definitely needed."

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