SANDISFIELD — With a fire chief who has passed the age at which state law says he must retire, and with a police chief and most firefighters nearing it, voters at a Thursday special town meeting approved a petition to the Legislature to ask that it waive a law that forces public safety officials to retire at age 65 and push it to 70.
In a 59-5 vote by secret ballot at the Department of Public Works garage, residents approved the petition that said that as long as the employee is mentally and physically able, they can continue to work public safety jobs.
In the case of current Fire Chief Ralph Morrison, who turned 66 last month, liability concerns would change his role to a “fire chief administrator,” and prevent him from fighting fires, Select Board member George Riley told The Eagle.
Morrison receives an annual stipend of about $10,000, Riley said, in addition to standby and active hourly pay.
The issue caught town officials by surprise last summer, when they saw that this would continue to be a problem, as most town firefighters are in their late 50s, and Police Chief Michael Morrison, 63, is approaching the mandatory retirement age.
Emergency medical technicians are exempt from the state law.
The town’s attorney drafted the waiver after learning that other towns successfully had petitioned the General Court to allow a specific employee to continue working after they had aged out.
It was a “contentious” issue at the meeting, Riley said, as some residents think the approach is “kicking the can down the road” and not solving the age problem.
“Which is actually exactly correct,” he added. “It gives us a little more time to come up with a Plan B. We obviously need to get younger people in. If we didn’t get this passed, we would basically lose most of our Fire Department.”
Riley said that putting the petition in motion temporarily keeps the town immune from a lawsuit, for instance, if a firefighting response failed “and the victims were aware of the fact that we were basically operating illegally.”
Riley said he believes it is the first time the state has been asked for a “blanket waiver” that covers the town.
And it is this that worries some.
One resident, Carl Nicholas, said that it seemed unlikely that lawmakers would approve something that would set a precedent for every community in the state to raise the retirement age to 70. He said this could leave the town in “a crisis situation.”
Nicholas, in a Facebook post, also noted 17 instances of petitions, all to raise the age for specific employees — not all.
One local lawmaker said home rule petitions are specific to a person or community, and so he isn’t worried that it could set a precedent.
“We’ve been doing this for years,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “It’s what small towns are facing, finding qualified people. I’ll be happy to do whatever I can to help them out.”
Voters also unanimously approved two procedural items — to allow alcoholic beverages to be served in a restaurant from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays; and to exempt the town from special permitting for its own municipal signs.