GILFORD — What began as an effort by town officials to replace the fire department’s 25-year-old Engine 4 has turned into an ongoing public argument between budget committee members and selectmen over whether the town really needs four fire trucks.
The issue is in limbo until some time this week. That’s when Belknap Superior Court Judge Kenneth McHugh is expected to issue his decision on whether the town can hold a special emergency town meeting to ask voters for $241,000 for a replacement truck. Voters defeated an article for such a truck in March.
At a court hearing last Friday, the town’s attorney, Walter Mitchell, Fire Chief Stephen Carrier and others testified to the need to replace Engine 4, arguing the old truck is too costly to repair and the town needs a fourth truck, a pumper, to serve as backup to Engine 1.
But two budget committee members, David Horvath Sr. and Kevin Leandro, spoke against the town meeting request. Leandro told the judge that the issue had been dealt with at town meeting and that Engine 4 is not beyond reasonable repair costs.
Among Leandro’s key points of opposition, though, was the town simply doesn’t need a fourth fire engine. In letters to the editor and at recent town meetings, his point of view has been echoed by residents, some of whom claim Engine 4 hasn’t been used enough in recent years to justify replacing it.
“I’ve been told by other chiefs from other places that a town our size doesn’t need four fire trucks,” Leandro said before the hearing.
“We have a mutual aid system with other towns that works quite well when we need more trucks.”
In fact, Belmont, a town of a little more than 7,000 people — about the same size as Gilford — also has four trucks. Meredith has fewer than 7,000 people and has six trucks.
“The town of Gilford has had four trucks since 1968,” Carrier said after the hearing. “We’re fairly typical of towns in this area.”
Carrier said the fourth truck plays a vital role in town, so much so that the town has made an arrangement with Laconia to use one of the neighboring city’s engines, if necessary, while Engine 4 is replaced.
“People don’t realize sometimes that we get an influx of people in these towns in the summer and the winter,” Carrier said. “There’s no doubt that we need the fourth truck.”
Before the March meeting, selectmen had recommended the truck, but the budget committee was deadlocked, 6-6, on the issue. Voters defeated the article, 709 in favor to 915 against.
After that vote, town officials looked at other options. A truck repair shop said it would cost at least $50,000 to fix Engine 4 and the town was told that investing more money into Engine 4 may not be wise. A state police inspection took the truck off the road shortly after the March vote.
Town officials hope residents would vote differently, given new information about repair costs and feasibility of repairing the old truck, so they have asked the court for an emergency town meeting for a second vote. The town’s question to voters would be slightly different, asking them to pay about $50,000 a year for 10 years on a $441,000 truck.
The town budget committee supported the latest plan, 8-4, with Leandro and Horvath among those against it.
Leandro isn’t sure that a special town meeting would even solve the issue. “We’ll probably still be arguing about this next March,” he said.
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Dan Seufert may be reached at email@example.com.