Funding for Athol Firefighters defeated at polls

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 08-01-2023 2:24 PM

ATHOL – Stunned — that seemed to be the sentiment of many people Tuesday morning following the defeat of a Proposition 2 ½ override at a Special Election on Monday.

The ballot question sought $895,000, which would have added eight firefighters to the Athol Fire Department, resulting in an increase of two firefighters per shift. These are currently handled by only four personnel, less than the state average of six firefighters. The vote was 257 in favor and 501 against the override, for a total of 758 votes cast – less than 10% of the town’s registered voters.

When an override is passed, it results in a permanent increase in the levy limit of the community which, as part of the levy limit base, increases at the rate of 2.5 percent each year.

Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera was unavailable for comment Tuesday morning, but Town Manager Shaun Suhoski told the Athol Daily News, “I am disappointed in the outcome because we need to provide adequate support to our fire and EMS service. One thing I noticed is, despite efforts to educate folks, there was so much misinformation – some of it, I believe, to be intentional – on Facebook and social media. People were really just going with opinion and not the facts, and that did not help us with the election.”

Asked if it was a mistake to hold the election in mid-summer when families are off on vacation, Suhoski said, “People conjecture on that…That’s just opinion. I don’t know what’s better or not. What I do know is that it’s unfortunate that, in general – not just in Athol, but in general – election turnout and participation in Town Meeting is trending in the wrong direction.”

The town manager said officials needed to look for better ways to engage voters and ensure they are getting the information in order to make informed decisions, as well as doing more to encourage them to vote.

“We’re going to be looking at that as we go forward,” Suhoski said.

Since the beginning of the year, Guarnera visited a number of municipal boards to secure backing for the override, which received overwhelming support at the Annual Town Meeting in June.

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In addition, a number of public meetings were held which gave Guarnera a chance to explain the constraints under which his department was laboring due to the staffing shortage, as well as give residents the opportunity to ask questions.

At an informational session in late June, Guarnera explained that in 1998, the department had 24 firefighters, whereas today it has only 19. In that time, the number of calls has increased each year from about 1,100 to over 4,000. He added that in 2020, there were 387 times when two calls came in at once, leading to the station being unable to respond if there was another call. In 2022, this happened 473 times.

Selectboard member Rebecca Bialecki said she was shocked and disappointed by the results and is unsure what else could have been done.

“I talked to so many people who were voting ‘yes,’ so I was really stunned by how many people went out to vote and voted ‘no,’” Bialecki said. “I’m also completely disappointed in the low turnout. To get (less than) 10% of our registered voters out to vote at all is really terrible.”

Looking ahead, Bialecki said, “I don’t think there’s been any discussion about the what-ifs, but I know that right now we’re still stuck with a severely short-staffed department. So when people are going to have to wait for an ambulance to get there, when they’re going to have to see delays in responding to local fire calls, or some other town has to come to take you to a hospital – you know, that’s on the people who voted ‘no.’”

Going forward, Suhoski said the town will need to regroup, analyze its revenue streams and work on alternatives for improving staffing at the fire department.

“We’ll engage the policy-making boards and our staff, and we’ll come up with some options,” he said. “We’ll just take it a step at a time. The issue has not gone away; we still need to supplement staffing in the fire department, and we’ll continue to work toward that.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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