BOS gives edge to firefighters for grant


FALLS VILLAGE - The matter of how to apportion a possible half-million-dollar state grant has been settled by the Board of Selectmen.

At its regular meeting Monday night, the board voted unanimously to ask state officials who administer the Small Towns Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) to give $300,000 to the Falls Village Volunteer Fire Department and $200,000 to the Falls Village Cultural and Community Center.

The move closes the book on one chapter of an issue that had become the source of some controversy, with the community center board, which is a division of the Falls Village Children's Theater Company, asking last month for the whole amount, even as the fire department was looking for funds to begin construction of a new emergency services center on Route 7.

"I do consider the children's theater to be worthy," said Selectman Chuck Lewis. "But the Falls Village Volunteer Fire Department is more than worthy. It is essential."

Lewis had proposed a $350,000/$150,000 split, with First Selectman Pat Mechare appearing to support him, but Selectman Peter Lawson wanted the money to be divided evenly. So the board agreed to a compromise that would recognize the relative importance of both organizations.

Theater had wanted it all

At its Dec. 10 meeting, children's theater board member and donor Bob Neimeth had announced that his organization wanted the full $500,000.

At Monday's meeting, two children's theater board members, Denise Cohn and George Elling, were present but said little.

They did submit a brief written statement about their "need to identify and receive approximately $500,000" to preserve and restore the aging R&D Emerson building on Main Street. The theater group bought the structure last year for $150,000 with the goal renovating it into a performing venue and community center.

Making a case for the firefighters

Former First Selectman Louis Timolat, who applied for and received several STEAP grants while in office, told the selectmen the grant process is competitive and that the actual amount received varies.

Timolat, an ambulance driver for the town's rescue squad, said he had done a study of the value of labor performed by the volunteers who staff the fire and rescue squads. He came up with a conservative estimate of $1.5 million for the estimated 180,000 hours logged by volunteers last year.

"That would be half of our municipal spending," said Timolat.

Kent Allyn, the president of the fire department's Board of Directors, asked that the department be considered for $250,000 "or any amount you choose."

Beckey Seney, a member of the department and the former chair of its building committee, said the $1.5-million estimate the department received for the new firehouse was four years old and so the actual tab would likely be higher.

Allyn said the department has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations, but will likely have to approach the town for the balance of the project. So any grant monies not received for the new emergency services center will likely have to come from taxpayers anyway.

The department was awarded a STEAP grant in 2004. Fire department officials say the $250,000 grant application was mishandled by the state Department of Public Safety, which administers the grant application. So, earlier this year the town had to take the lengthy and complicated step of applying for an extension.

The department has received $50,000 and the balance of the funds is still expected to be paid out. The paperwork for the current grant application is due next month.

But Mechare, a member of the fire department and whose husband Curt was the fire chief for many years, wanted to dispel the notion that the department was not prepared to spend the grant funds it will receive.

"If there was any doubt that they don't have a plan..." Mechare said as she held up a 5-inch thick roll of blueprints.

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