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Limestone fire chief suggests using ARPA funds for firefighting gear

LIMESTONE, Maine — Limestone’s volunteer fire department will soon need new firefighting gear, according to Fire Chief Jon Poitras.

At the latest selectboard meeting Wednesday, Jan. 4, Poitras suggested that Limestone utilize an estimated $38,000 of its $230,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to purchase new turnout gear — firefighting jackets, pants and boots — and potentially a new snowblower for the fire station.

This year, Poitras needs to replace two worn-out sets of turnout gear but the department’s regular budget is limited. The ARPA funds would allow him to replace at least eight to 10 sets of turnout gear.

Costs for the gear have gone up significantly from when Poitras became chief in 2012, he said.

“Ten years ago, I could buy a jacket and pants for $1,200. Now it’s at least $3,500,” Poitras said. “We haven’t purchased gear for every member since 2001.”

The recent discovery of PFAS chemicals previously used to make firefighting gear waterproof has also led to cost increases. Companies are experimenting with new ways to make gear waterproof, which takes more time and labor.

In addition, companies specializing in that gear have been facing post-pandemic material and labor shortages, Poitras noted.

Limestone initially planned to use $6,000 of its ARPA funds to purchase new heat pumps for the fire station. But officials scrapped that plan after finding out that the pumps would not operate effectively because of in-floor heating already in place there.

Interim Town Manager Walt Elliot said that those unused funds could be dedicated to turnout gear and possibly the snowblower. 

The town has until Dec. 31, 2024, to formally document ARPA-funded projects, but has until Dec. 31, 2026, to spend the money.

Elliot is requesting that the selectboard vote on the fire station funds before June because the town’s new budget cycle starts in July. 

If the town decides not to devote ARPA funds, Poitras said he could continue setting aside funds in his department’s budget to make separate purchases in the coming years.

In the meantime, he and Elliot agreed to explore potential grants that could reduce the ARPA-related costs for turnout gear.

“We could use the ARPA funds as matching funds for a grant,” said selectboard member Chris Durepo.

Several selectboard members brought up the possibility of applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants, which frequently are awarded to local fire departments. Though a valid option, Poitras said that the long wait time would hinder the town’s decision about ARPA funds.

“The wait time for FEMA grants is 12 months,” Poitras said. 

The selectboard agreed to table the discussion until its next meeting.

In other business, Elliot announced that he and the selectboard will review applications for the town manager position at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, during an executive session.

The application period ended Wednesday and the town received information from five applicants, Elliot said.

Limestone has been working with the Bangor-based law firm Eaton Peabody to hire a new town manager by Feb. 1. The town paid Eaton Peabody $8,000 to expand advertising into New England states beyond Maine and New Hampshire.

The firm also helped lead a meeting in December where residents spoke about qualities they most want to see in the new manager. Many pointed out the town’s need for stability after years of management turnover.

When hired, the new manager will replace Tara Henderson, who resigned in August 2022 and cited burnout among staff members, including herself, as reasons for her departure.

The next regular selectboard meeting will occur at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18, at the Limestone Town Office, 93 Main St.

LIMESTONE, Maine — January 4, 2023 — Limestone selectboard members Chris Durepo (left) and Randy Brooker discuss potential ARPA funding for the town’s fire department. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

LIMESTONE, Maine — January 4, 2023 — Limestone Fire Chief Jon Poitras (right) discusses the volunteer department’s need for new turnout gear while selectboard member Jesse Philbrick looks on. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

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