ROCKLAND  — A majority of City Councilors voiced support Wednesday evening, May 11, for a plan to create an additional three-person shift in the fire department despite a price tag that would ultimately add about $260,000 to the municipal budget.

Fire Chief Christopher Whytock said without this progressive plan the community will not have enough people to respond to emergency calls.

The proposal put forth by the chief is to ultimately hire three more people, creating an additional shift. This would allow the city to change the workweeks for firefighters/emergency medical service personnel from 56 hours to 42 hours. The weekly pay would not change, but the reduction in hours would increase the hourly rate to be more in line with other Maine communities.

Without the change, the city will lose more firefighters to other communities and not be able to attract new employees who will go to communities that have already switched to the new schedule.

Mayor Ed Glaser said he will not vote for the change and may vote against the overall 2022-2023 budget if this addition is included. He called the addition a “poison pill” for the budget.

Rockland already has one of the highest property tax rates in the state, the mayor said, saying he would prefer to see a long-term plan.

Rockland, Camden, and Rockport are in discussions about the possibility of  regional fire service but that will also cost more money than the current budget, the chief said. Knox County is also planning to spend some of its federal grant money to hire a consultant to look at the feasibility of creating a regional fire service.

While Glaser opposed the addition, the four other councilors said they would support the measure. The May 11 vote was a straw vote. A formal preliminary vote on the overall budget is expected May 23, with a formal public hearing and final approval scheduled for June 27.

The city manager’s overall budget for 2022-2023 is $15,545,000, an increase of 7% ($1,076,000) over the approved 2021-2022 budget.

The increased city budget, coupled with a projected increase in school and county costs, is projected to increase the tax bill for a home assessed at $200,000 by $316. Fifty-four cents of every dollar in property taxes raised in Rockland goes to Regional School Unit 13, 41 cents goes to municipal services, and five cents goes to Knox County.

Councilor Nicole Kalloch said she was not willing to sacrifice public safety and would support the additional shift for the fire department.

Councilor Sarah Austin said she supports the addition because public safety is a priority for municipal services. She said, however, she would like to see a more specific time schedule for a regional fire service proposal, suggesting two years.

Councilor Nate Davis said he supports the measure because it provides equity to Rockland’s firefighters/emergency medical personnel.

Contributions to outside organizations

Councilors were divided during the May 11 meeting on whether to restore funding for outside social service agencies.

Representatives from two organizations — St. Bernard’s soup kitchen and AIO Food and Energy Assistance — attended the Wednesday evening meeting to urge councilors to include money for their services.

Richard Norman said without the $7,500 Rockland provides, the St. Bernard’s soup kitchen could close its doors. The program operates at a loss, he said, even with the assistance from the city.

St. Bernard’s soup kitchen has provided a meal each weekday since 1984. The soup kitchen provides 18,000 meals a year.

“We did not miss one single meal during the pandemic,” he said. Meals were packaged and provided to those who were in need of a meal.

Norman noted costs are up and people are struggling.

“Now is not the time to cut us off,” Norman said.

Joe Ryan, executive director of AIO Food and Energy Assistance, said the organization provided food to 764 Rockland families (1,900 people) during the past year.

He said Rockland taxpayers receive high value for their investment. The city has provided $30,000 to AIO.

City Manager Tom Luttrell acknowledged it was a difficult decision to propose cutting money for outside organizations that provide such services. The cuts were recommended to help offset some of the higher costs, such as energy.

Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf said she would do anything she can to help the two organizations get money.

Councilor Nate Davis said he was not inclined to give taxpayer dollars to non-profits.

MacLellan-Ruf said councilors had no problem giving $16,000 to the Maine Lobster Festival. The Council voted 3-2 on May 9 to waive $16,000 in fees for the Festival to use city waterfront parks.

Mayor Glaser asked how the Council decides which organization deserves taxpayer dollars.

Councilor Kalloch said she would like to wait until next month when a final vote is scheduled to determine whether the city should provide assistance to the organizations.

Councilor Austin pointed out the city has a citizen committee that is working on how to spend $30,000 through a participatory budget process and organizations could receive money that way. She also recommended waiting until the end of the budget process.

In the current 2021-2022 budget, the city contributed a total of $81,851 to outside organizations. The only one included in the 2022-2023 budget is $30,000 for Rockland District Nursing Association. In 2021-2022, in addition to RDNA, St.Bernard’s and AIO, other recipients included the Knox Clinic at $7,341, Penquis at $12,228 which provides a variety of services including Head Start and rental assistance, Out Maine at $5,000, and Waldo Community Action Partners at $4,842 which provides transportation services.

Councilors gave the city manager the go-ahead to send notices to tax-exempt property owners in Rockland, saying how much they would pay if they were taxable. Councilors suggested this could encourage them to make voluntary payments to the city.

On Monday, May 16, the Council will review the police, community development, legislative, executive, assessing, harbor, and general assistance departments. On Wednesday, May 18, the Council will review public services, finance, code enforcement, city clerk, city hall, recreation, and technology departments. On Monday, May 23, capital improvement projects, debt service, and wastewater departments will be reviewed.