It’s shiny and red and bigger and more robust than Waterbury’s older fire trucks, and the Waterbury Volunteer Fire Department is delighted to have it.
The town’s new fire truck arrived in town last Thursday, helping to solve a major problem caused by a pair of fire-truck failures. One truck needed engine repairs that could run $20,000; the other had a water tank with a big leak in it.
The new truck is built from the ground up to fight fires, rather than converted from more conventional trucks; it has a roomy cab and a body made of steel. And it’s fully outfitted and ready to roll. It’s stationed at the Maple Street firehouse in Waterbury Center.
While the wider, taller truck will take some getting used to, Fire Chief Gary Dillon said the upgrade will serve the community well. And now the select board has the cash to buy another just like it, if it chooses to.
On Nov. 12, Waterbury voters overwhelmingly approved borrowing up to $1,025,000 to buy two fire trucks and a roadside mower. The initial figure of $1 million for the two trucks was refined to $900,000 and a $110,000 request for a big roadside mower was increased to $125,000.
The vote for the trucks was nearly unanimous, with only a single vote against. Debate about the mower lasted longer, but voters approved the purchase without a single naysayer.
For the special town meeting, the Steele Community Room roared with chatter as taxpayers trickled in. The meeting was moved to the municipal building because Thatcher Brook School, the original meeting site, was closed for a snow day. The meeting time was also pushed back 20 minutes so voters could find their way to the meeting room. Over 50 residents attended, including nearly half of the fire department.
Dillon, the fire chief, said the department’s current trucks are based on commercial dump truck chassis. The new trucks are custom vehicles, built specifically for pumping water and fighting fires.
“They’re a bigger truck, they need to hold more people, and they’re significantly safer when we’re out on the road,” he said.
A few years ago, one of the town’s fire trucks skidded on a sheet of ice, ran into a barrier and had to be shelved for repairs. Another truck, standing by at an accident, was hit by a tractor-trailer truck. Accidents happen, and the new trucks will be safer for firefighters, Dillon said later in an interview.
The two trucks are both demonstrator vehicles. If town officials approve buying the second truck, it will arrive in late 2020. The trucks are a great deal, about $70,000 less than normal.
“We’re also voting on a piece of highway equipment,” Dillon told voters. “This is $70,000 of savings that can put a big dent into that next purchase.”
Bill Shepeluk, Waterbury’s municipal manager, said the $900,000 fire truck loan would raise the property-tax rate by 2.9 cents per $100 of property value — $58 a year on $200,000 of property — if paid off in five years, but it’s likely repayment will be spread over 15 or 20 to lighten the tax impact.
Asked why a loan is better than an outright purchase, Shepeluk said the tax impact is less over time, and he prefers paying for the trucks through financing over their expected 20-year lifespan.
The board hasn’t yet decided to buy the second truck, and is considering alternatives, such as using parts from the two broken fire trucks to produce one that works well.
“I think [the vote] gave the select board options,” said board member Michael Bard.
The first debate was whether the town should buy a used or new mower.
Mark Frier, select board member, favored looking into a used mower, but a resident disagreed, calling used mowers junk.
“I’ve been involved in agriculture for over 45 years and I, too, question whether we want to spend $95,000 on a used mower. The extra $30,000 makes a lot more sense,” said Bard, the select board member.
“Plus, the reason why I think it’s important to do this tonight, it gives the select board the most freedom to look at things,” he said, in hopes of finding good deals over the winter.
This debate went nowhere, and residents voted 23-17 to delete the word “new” from the proposal.
As the crowd started to thin, resident James Grace questioned the urgency of voting on a mower.
“There’s snow outside, so I can’t imagine we’re going to use it anytime soon,” Grace said. “We came here for the purpose of a fairly urgent issue of fire trucks. We’re now here till almost 9 talking about a far less urgent issue with a small fraction of the town and I don’t think that’s appropriate.” He moved to table the issue.
Chris Viens, select board chairman, said he was at his hunting camp in northern Maine before the vote. “I was willing to travel eight and a half hours here, and turn around and travel eight and a half hours back tomorrow. People here had to drive 15 minutes in the same conditions. How important was it to them?” Viens asked.
“Let them do their job,” said resident John Sherman. “Let them make the decision tonight to move forward. … If you don’t like them, vote ’em off.”
Only three people favored the motion to table, and the mower purchase was approved unanimously.