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Pittsfield voters purchase and equip ambulance

Pittsfield voters bought themselves a new ambulance and equipment to fill it yesterday for $230,000 without raising taxes a penny, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they also rejected two proposals backed by the selectmen to change the way in which the town saves for such expenditures.

The new Chevrolet ambulance will replace a 2004 Ford with more than 90,000 miles on it, one of two ambulances upon which the town depends. The money will come from a special account funded by fees charged to ambulance users, which is why the purchase won’t affect taxes.

The ambulance purchase passed despite reservations expressed by budget committee Chairman Louis Houle, who questioned whether the fire department had settled on the best truck and price. “Maybe we should look at it just a little bit harder,” he said, suggesting a year’s wait for additional research.

“It’s just not right,” countered Pat Heffernan, who argued that the old ambulance was not reliable. “You’re fooling around with people’s lives here for a few bucks.”

Next, in what the selectmen acknowledged was a confusing sequence of three warrant articles, the board proposed to eliminate the ambulance account, create a new savings account to cover both ambulances and fire trucks going forward, and direct the money from ambulance users into the town’s general bank account rather than an account restricted to paying for ambulance services.

Houle said the budget committee supported the changes in the funding system because the cost of the ambulance service is rising – fees fell short of covering expenses in the past year – while the current structure limits the committee’s oversight and the town’s flexibility. If money from ambulance users flowed into the town’s general bank account, he said, voters could decide for themselves how much to save toward a new ambulance every year.

Fred Hast, a retired longtime fire chief, opposed the change, saying this year’s shortfall was due to one-time expenses incurred after several workers took family leave.

“I’m almost as old as Fred,” added Art Morse, who joined Hast in opposing the change. “I can remember when we had battles over the ambulance – where are you going to get the money?”

In the end, voters rejected the proposed changes in the system. A similar proposal, to consolidate six savings accounts for specific types of highway equipment into a single, simpler account, met the same fate. Cedric Dustin worried that putting all the money in one pot might mean some needs never got met. “I think simple is worse in this case,” he said.

Dustin is a member of the Housing Standards Agency, which oversees the inspection of rental housing in Pittsfield. He also spoke against two proposals backed by the selectmen to change that system, too. One would have given the selectmen and not the housing board authority to appoint housing inspectors.

Larry Konopka, the chairman of the selectmen, said the board believed it would be more effective for the fire department to conduct rental inspections.

“We have never heard from the selectmen that there was a problem,” Dustin replied. “. . . If nobody was ever informed there was a problem, I don’t know why we need a solution.”

Voters agreed, and both proposals died.

The question of whether the next fire chief should be full or part time was another matter of dispute and confusion. The current chief, John DeSilva, is retiring at the end of March. DeSilva worked part time, as did his predecessor, despite a 2005 town meeting vote making the job full time.

Selectwoman Linda Small said the board was advertising for an interim part-time chief, in reflection of the current budget, but wanted to determine whether voters still believed the job should be full time. The board put that question before yesterday’s town meeting in an article saying that going to a full-time chief would increase the 2014 fire department budget by $45,468.

Mike Wolfe said the position should have been full time long ago, given the 2005 vote. “The selectmen are not doing the will of the people,” he said.

Small said the part-time approach was working, but in light of the 2005 vote, the selectmen wanted guidance. “We are trying to do what you want,” she said.

The wording of the article, with its reference to 2014, left voters confused, and after it was defeated, more questions followed. In the end, selectmen were confused, too. Konopka said the board would consult a lawyer before deciding how to proceed.

Chris Ward thanked the board for its efforts but added, “I’d like a little better communication.”

“One of our commitments this year is better communication,” answered Konopka.

Voters approved an operating budget of $3.8 million, down slightly from last year. They approved $60,000 to stop water leaks at the Josiah Carpenter Library as well as adding a second basement exit to comply with safety codes.

They also defeated two articles submitted by Dan Schroth. The first called for instructing the fire department “to stop blowing the stupid fire alarm at 9 p.m.,” and it failed after police Chief Robert Wharem said that could render the town’s youth curfew, which requires an audible notice, unenforceable. The second called for legalizing “grass in the good town of Pittsfield.”

There was no lack of communication about voters’ feelings toward two town officials. Public Works Superintendent George Bachelder received two rounds of applause, the first for Pittsfield’s good roads and the second when he spoke against his own $33,215 request for a generator at the highway garage. On reflection, he said, he didn’t want to increase taxes, and would instead ask selectmen to buy the generator in a year when a light winter freed up enough money in his existing budget to do so.

Frances Marston, who is stepping down as a supervisor of the checklist after serving since 1971, received a bouquet of flowers and a standing ovation. Her longtime colleague, Roberta Maxfield, joked that Marston was so popular that town residents really don’t turn out to vote. “They just come to see Fran,” she said.

*This story was updated on March 18, 2013, to correct the name of Selectwoman Linda Small.

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