Cavendish Fire Department fends off cuts before budget approval

CAVENDISH, Vt. – The Cavendish Fire Department found themselves defending their station’s funding at their annual meeting June 15, as residents tried to gut their annual budget, citing a desire to force a merger with the Proctorsville Fire Department.

The issue of a merger between the two separate fire departments that sit about a mile apart on Route 131 has been an ongoing topic of debate for decades.

After quick initial approval of the board officers, Cavendish volunteer firefighter Stuart Lindberg made a motion to approve the total of $97,450 to cover the expected expenses for the following year, which includes paying two part-time EMTs. Other members of the department are volunteers.

After some clarifying budget questions were discussed, Cavendish resident Rolf van Schaik moved to amend the motion and cut the budget to $36,446 saying that he has “long been an advocate of merging the two fire departments.” He then enumerated all the items that he suggested eliminating from the budget, all which aligned with that goal.

Former interim Cavendish Fire Chief Abe Gross, moderator for the meeting, calmly explained that the vote for the budget sets the tax rate for how much money is raised, but does not automatically eliminate the fire department by cutting the budget. He said that he was sympathetic to the desire for a merger but that it was inappropriate to do that through this process. He did, however, allow the motion to amend the budget stand.

Cavendish resident Margo Caulfield, although agreeing with the concept of a merger, defended the Cavendish Fire Department saying that having two EMTs was extremely helpful and would like to see more emergency medical services provided to Proctorsville if they needed it. She also made the point that an ambulance coming from Ludlow takes a long time. Later in the meeting, she made the point that firefighting services are more skewing more toward emergency medical calls rather than fire and rescue, a point confirmed with the Cavendish Fire Department’s own calls, which showed that 56 of the 100 calls were deemed “medical calls.” She also reiterated that trying to dissolve the department is not as easy as saying they won’t fund the budget.

Cavendish resident Peter LaBelle said he agreed with van Schaik that it was time for the departments to merge but said that there wasn’t any traction happening in the process from the people in executive positions in town and that it would need to happen with town folks.

Lindberg said that he would love to see the two fire departments merge but his efforts to make it happen had fallen short in recent years. He also made the case that for $97,000 with the services they provide. “I don’t believe it’s asking too much.”

Cavendish Town Manager Brendan McNamara recapped merger efforts to date, saying that Covid-19 restrictions did play a factor in delaying progress but that there was “a lot of wheel spinning between both departments,” and that there had been no definitive answer from either side. An attorney hired for the process had already billed $5,000 to the town, and they had gotten nowhere. He said that until he got a sense that both districts were ready to move forward, it would be an injustice to taxpayers to spend more money unless both districts and the town know what they’re doing.

Cavendish resident Amanda Gross confirmed that changing the budget of the department would only impact the people who live in Cavendish and would not result in a merger legally in any way.

One of the Cavendish volunteers made the point that the department has seen greater development this past year and all the services, mostly from volunteers, are helping protect the town and are working for the safety of everyone in the area.

After discussion was over, the vote on the amended amount of the budget, $36,446, was voted on by paper ballot and was defeated with only 16 voting yes, and 21 voting no.

The original amount was then voted on, also by paper ballot, and was approved with 21 voting yes and 14 voting no, approving the total $97,450 budget.

The meeting ended with an agreement to permanently move the date of the annual meeting to the third Tuesday in May.

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