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The suspension -- and later reinstatement -- of 15 members of the Bennington Rural Fire Department resulted in a packed meeting at the Willow Road Firehouse last week. The incident that led to the controversy has reignited discussions among Select Board members about consolidating the rural and village departments. (Peter Crabtree)
The suspension -- and later reinstatement -- of 15 members of the Bennington Rural Fire Department resulted in a packed meeting at the Willow Road
The suspension -- and later reinstatement -- of 15 members of the Bennington Rural Fire Department resulted in a packed meeting at the Willow Road Firehouse last week. The incident that led to the controversy has reignited discussions among Select Board members about consolidating the rural and village departments. (Peter Crabtree)
Wednesday June 26, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Senior Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Select Board has asked town officials to prepare data on how much local residents could save if the Bennington Rural Fire Department was consolidated with the town-run Bennington Fire Department.

Select Board Vice Chairwoman Sharyn Brush raised the issue Monday, citing legal issues in recent years that members of the BRFD have faced, which include several criminal charges. The department has "gone astray," Brush said.

"Given the recent problems with the Rural Fire Department, I think the time has come for us to open some serious discussions regarding the consolidation of the departments. I'd like to see this on the agenda in the future, maybe some time in August," Brush said.

Brush, along with Chairman Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr., said Bennington residents could save money.

"More to follow from the town about our feelings about the consolidation and the price savings. There's cost savings in equipment purchases for both the town and rural. There's cost savings in terms of insurance based on the different areas," Krawczyk said. "There's a lot of things and I'm learning about it."

The Bennington Fire Department is run by the town and overseen by Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, who is also the town's public safety director. The BRFD, meanwhile, is a separate entity chartered by the Legislature that has its own taxing district. The district is overseen by an elected prudential committee and the department is run by elected chiefs.

The BRFD has strongly resisted consolidation, citing the department's history.

Bennington Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd estimated in 2010 that Bennington residents could save about $215,000 in the two departments' annual budgets through consolidation. Other savings -- building maintenance and operation, equipment purchases and maintenance -- would be substantial, Hurd said.

Brush asked for updated financial information that can be presented to residents.

"I would ask town staff to put together some cost saving numbers. I know we've looked at this in the past, but I'm not sure that the citizens actually, in the rural district, realize how much savings could be afforded them by consolidating the two fire department. I know it's probably going to open a can of worms, but, I think it needs to happen," Brush said.

Members of the BRFD were recently suspended by Chief Shawn Gardner because of a pending investigation by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. The state is investigating a fire at a local mud-bogging event that a member of the department admitted setting at a public meeting. The firemen have been reinstated, despite the ongoing investigation.

Other members of the department have faced various criminal charges, including embezzlement and sexual assault, in recent months and years.

"I'm not sure how strong the leadership is up there. They've just kind of lost their way a little bit," said Brush, who suggested having a non-binding ballot question to gauge public sentiment. "I have nothing against firemen. I have a son that's a fireman. They're the best, but they've just gone astray."

Select Board member Greg Van Houten suggested consolidation could help the department.

"They're good firemen, they're a good squad. They seem to be having some problems and if we can find a way to help them function better I think we have an obligation to look into it," Van Houten said.

Any effort to consolidate the two departments will likely require a lengthy process involving negotiations.

"To make that work successful, we're going to have to sit down with the chiefs of the Bennington Fire Department and the chiefs of the Bennington Rural Fire Department and negotiate," Doucette said. "The last thing we want to do is upset the fire departments and force consolidation. We want to make sure that we can all work together. If this is something that the town wants and the taxpayers in the rural district want, then we will work on it."

Doucette said the active volunteers in both departments will be needed to maintain full coverage of the areas currently served by both departments.

"There's a lot of great members of both departments that are active and who are well trained. It would take all of those members to make this work," he said.

Gardner said Tuesday that he was not prepared to comment on the Select Board's new push for consolidation.

"I really don't have an opinion yet," he said. "It's the first I've heard about it. I haven't really had time to think about it."

BFD Chief Steve Crawford said he, too, was not prepared to comment.

"The rumor has been out there for a long time. At this point I don't really have a comment," he said. "If the Select Board asked me to attend a meeting about it I would certainly do that."

BRFD Prudential Committee Chairman Steven Bruso did not return calls seeking comment.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami