“We were blindsided by this,” Tony Dale, president of the Ridgefield Volunteer Fire Department, told the Board of Selectmen.

The town’s annual contribution to the volunteer fire department’s “incentive fund” was proposed at $20,000 — down from the $25,000 the volunteers expected, based on years of precedent.

Dale and Timothy Pambianchi, deputy chief of the volunteer department, appeared before the seletmen’s Feb. 8 budget meeting to protest the reduced town contribution to the incentive fund, which finances a pension-like program for retired volunteer fire department members.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi explained that the selectmen’s proposed budget would maintain the level of the contribution — the $5,000 reduction had actually been made last spring, in the current year’s 2017-18 budget.

“It’s not a cut. It’s keeping it flat,”  Marconi said.

“We did cut it 2017-18.”

“You changed it to $20,000 last year. We just found out about that,” Dale said.

Requesting the $25,000 appropriation in November, Pambianchi outlined the fund’s value.

“The incentive fund is an important part of the department as it allows us to not only retain our more seasoned members, it also allows us to attract new members who will carry on our fine tradition of service in the future for the Town of Ridgefield,” he wrote.

There were 38 active volunteers in 1993 when the incentive program was established, compared to 56 volunteer firefighters today, Dale told the selectmen.

“The incentive program has done its job,” he said.

Dale said the town agreed in 1993 to fund the incentive program with a $25,000 contribution, repeated annually — until the reduction last year.

The “maximum” benefit a volunteer may access was set at $600 a year in 1993 — and remains that today.

“In 2018, that’s the exact same,” Dale said.

The town’s contribution also stayed the same.

“It has never been increased, never been adjusted for inflation,” Dale said. “It would be $43,000 today to be equal to the $25,000 given in 1993.”

‘Return on investment’

Dale stressed all the training the volunteers do, and invited the selectmen to observe the “drill night” they have every Tuesday.

The 56 volunteers do a lot to help the 37-member career department, he said.

“I think everyone would agree the town gets a great value for its investment,” Dale said.

Fire Chief Jerry Myers agreed.

“Return on investment — we get thousands of hours,” Myers said. “The department could not operate as effectively as it does.”

Overtime

The help is most valuable when there’s a big fire and volunteers play key roles — setting up the tanker shuttle that keeps the fire scene supplied with water, and the fire police directing traffic around the emergency scene.

Even on relatively routine calls, backup from the volunteers helps the paid firefighters, who work in eight-man shifts staffing ambulances as well as fire trucks out of both the Ridgebury and downtown firehouses.

“If you don’t have the volunteers, you’d have to get paid staff  — there’d be overtime,” Dale said.

By the numbers

The volunteers responded to 393 emergency calls last year, Dale and Pambianchi told the selectmen.

“The fire police have saved the town $41,000 or $42,000 in police overtime,” Pambianchi said.

Many volunteers are also “interior rated” to go into burning buildings to help fight a blaze, Dale said.

The town contribution to the volunteers’ incentive fund is among $210,000 in “community grants” the selectmen’s budget proposes distributing to some 21 organizations. At $20,000, the incentive fund contribution is proposed as the third largest community grant, exceeded only by $86,000 to support the HART bus program’s Katonah shuttle for commuters, and $65,000 to the Boys & Girls Club to run The Barn — formerly a town program. The next highest is $7,343 to Ability Beyond, and nine of the contributions are below the $1,000 for Meals on Wheels.

Desperate times

The selectmen didn’t dispute the importance of the volunteers.

“There’s no question about the value you provide,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners. “It isn’t for lack of appreciation that we cut — it’s because we’re desperate.”

“You do an incredible job for the town,” Marconi said. “We appreciate everything the volunteers do — it’s an amazing organization and we’re lucky to have you.”

The selectmen promised to try to get the contribution back to $25,000.

“We’ll do everything we can to restore it,” Marconi said.