Searsmont residents will no longer be electing their fire chief after approving an ordinance amendment that authorizes selectmen to fill the position by appointment.

In introducing the amendment at the town meeting April 1, First Selectman Bruce Brierley explained that the position would be better-suited to selection through a hiring process because of the extent of training required.

“It now takes quite a considerable amount of work and schooling,” he said. “It is not an easy position anymore.”

He said if the town were to elect a fire chief with insufficient training, selectmen would be powerless to dismiss him.

The Republican Journal found through a survey of Waldo County town clerks that the position of fire chief is appointed in 12 towns: Burnham, Troy, Unity, Winterport, Knox, Prospect, Palermo, Lincolnville, Belfast, Islesboro, Searsmont and Montville.

Montville's town clerk, Abbie Hills, said though the current fire chief was appointed, the town hasn't yet voted on shifting from an elected to an appointed fire chief, and will be doing so at the next town meeting.

In Thorndike, Frankfort and Northport,  fire departments are corporations that elect their own fire chiefs, and in Jackson, Monroe, Freedom, Brooks, Liberty, Morrill, Waldo, Stockton Springs, and Belmont the position is elected by the town.

While some Searsmont residents argued that approving the amendment would amount to fully ceding their democratic power in the matter to selectmen, more residents supported it. One commented that the town could face lawsuits if an elected fire chief who is in the process of getting his required training handles a fire improperly.

Tracy Harford, a lieutenant with the Searsmont Fire Department, spoke in support of the amendment. He said the department has trouble attracting any volunteers, let alone those with enough training to be chief.

“Last year, we had four people do basic fire school and two decided it wasn’t for them, so we only have two of the four that we trained,” he said during a break in the meeting. “It’s hard just getting people to show up at all, even without training.”

George Sprowl Sr., a former fire chief who served in the department for about 10 years, said after the meeting that things have changed dramatically since he was on the department in the 1970s.

“The way the regulations have changed, it’s a good idea to appoint (the fire chief) now,” he said. “It makes sense, and we’re not going to lose our democracy.”

The current fire chief, James Ames, was not at the meeting because he was on an ambulance call, according to Harford. Brierley said the town has been fortunate to have Ames as chief, but that the amendment was raised in anticipation of a time when he will no longer be able to serve in that position.

The ordinance amendment passed by a vote of 62 to 9.

Because it passed, the town did not elect a new fire chief.

The town also voted to reduce the recommended interest rate for property taxes not paid by Sept. 30, 2017, to 5 percent from 7 percent, an amendment that a resident said is made each year.

When asked why the interest rate is changed back to 7 percent in each town warrant, Town Clerk Kathy Hoey said that figure comes from the state as the maximum allowed.

The interest rate paid by the town on tax-abated properties was also reduced to 5 percent from the recommended 7 percent.

During discussion of donations to social services and nonprofits, a resident asked why Maine Public was not recommended to receive a donation. Mickey Sirota, co-chairman of the Donation Advisory Committee, said the committee considers three criteria for organizations requesting donations: if the organization serves basic needs, if it serves town residents, and whether it has received funding from the town previously. Maine Public did not meet two of those criteria, he said; nor did the organization respond to requests for more information. However, an amendment to donate $100 to Maine Public was approved by a vote of 39-28.

A donation to LifeFlight was doubled from the recommended $150 to $300.

Finally, an amendment was made to require the town to publicize sales of properties for non-payment of taxes. The amendment stipulated that notice of the intended sale must be publicized in The Free Press and The Republican Journal for two consecutive weeks at least 30 days before the sale, as well as posted at the Town Office, post office and on the town’s website.

Other than amending a budget article to reflect the $250 increase in social service and nonprofit donations, the rest of the town warrant passed as written.

Elections

Christopher Staples was re-elected as third selectman, assessor, road commissioner and overseer of the poor. He received 57 votes to Kenneth Seekins’ 18.

David Marceau and Sarah Crosby were re-elected to the Planning Board for three-year terms, and Sally Adams was elected for a two-year term.

Peter Milinazzo and Jeness Robbins were re-elected to the Cemetery Committee.

Gerilyn Winslow and Glenn Ritch were elected to the Library board of trustees.