Our opinion: The need to invest in fire protection

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There's no getting around it: Attendance at Manchester's 243rd Town Meeting was a bit underwhelming.

That's too bad, because there were important issues raised — issues that need to be better understood and addressed.

We're betting, for example, that outside of the Manchester Fire Department's membership and its families, there's not a lot of awareness of how much important equipment the department has purchased with donations raised by its association. Equipment that has saved life and property.

There is now. Manchester fire chief Chris Towslee on Saturday recited a laundry list of equipment that the Fire Department has purchased with money it was given or raised on its own, one pancake breakfast at a time. That includes a $35,000 "Jaws of Life" hydraulic vehicle rescue apparatus.

Like many volunteer fire departments across Vermont, the Manchester Fire Department has two significant demographic issues.

As the state ages, so does its core of first responders. A good number of Manchester firefighters are age 50 and over.

And with a shortage of younger adults comes a shortage of younger firefighter recruits to fill absolutely vital roles in protecting life and property.

Solving that problem is a separate issue. But we know this: New recruits to a fire department, here or anywhere, want and need to know that the equipment they'll be counting on for survival is as dependable as it can be, in every way. Nothing less will do.

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Volunteers should not be expected to pay for life-saving equipment out of their own pockets, as if they were racing late model stock cars or playing senior league hockey.

The town has increased fire department spending in the budget passed by voters on Saturday, and are aware of the department's equipment needs. We hope the department and town leaders are on the same page moving forward.

But that can't be the end of it.

Town Manager John O'Keefe has previously raised the possibility that Manchester could borrow money for a number of projects and purchases that are too large for the operating or capital budgets, but too small to bond on their own. Sidewalk replacements, relocating the overhead utility lines on Main Street, and the town's share of safety and parking improvements at Manchester Elementary Middle School are all prime candidates for such funding.

On Saturday, O'Keefe said that borrowing could also help pay for a replacement rescue truck to replace the department's 34-year-old model.

The town presently has $11.8 million in bond debt, with the overwhelming majority of that ($8.23 million) owed by the water department and shouldered by its ratepayers. Its municipal government owes $1.9 million of that total debt, for three projects: The Park House, the highway garage, and a highway bond.

Advocating borrowing is always tricky business, because it requires a multi-year commitment by the taxpayers and the confidence that the town can afford to borrow, no matter what financial conditions tomorrow brings. It's not to be taken lightly. (And we do recognize it's easy to spend other people's money.)

But the town has worked very hard to build up its credit rating for just such a purpose. That credit is there so that when faced with need, the town can make large purchases and pay them off over time at the best possible rates.

It would seem this is just such an occasion.


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