AUGUSTA — Feeling the heat from constituents angry they may be forced to pay a $7 fee for open burn permits they have been getting for free through private online sites, lawmakers are trying to douse the controversy and cool off their constituents.

Senators on Friday unanimously backed an emergency measure from Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, that would let private sites continue to issue free online permits for many Mainers. It still needs the approval of the House.

Gary Hickey, the fire chief in West Gardiner, said he hopes the Legislature will approve Saviello’s bill.

Hickey, who created one of the private online sites five years ago, said it is “a service that’s really taken off.”

However, it came to a crashing halt a week ago when the Maine Forest Service, apparently on the advice of the Attorney General’s Office, announced that online sites such as burningpermit.com and Hickey’s wardensreport.com could no longer issue online permits.

“As soon as this rule was changed, I immediately began hearing from fire chiefs and residents who prefer using the private websites and would like to continue doing so,” Saviello said in a prepared statement.

Maine law mandates that anybody burning brush and the like must have a permit from their municipality or the Forest Service. Local fire chiefs can sometimes offer residents more flexibility about burn times.

Saviello said private websites that issue the permits “are providing a valuable service and are allowing municipalities to save money and streamline how they issue burn permits, which gives them more control and flexibility.”

Many towns have signed up with private sites to give them the authority to issue permits for residents, including dozens that paid $75 to the West Gardiner-based Warden’s Report Online Burning Permit System so that residents could use it to get free permits.

People can already get free paper permits by going to local fire departments, but many find it simpler to go online. It also eases the bureaucratic burden on departments when residents get their permits online.

The state also has an online service to get permits, but using it costs $7, a fee that most people would rather avoid.

Though some suspected the change was a money-making move by the state, legislative analysts figured that allowing free burn permits from private parties would only reduce revenue by “a minor amount.”

Saviello said he’s glad legislators were able “to move quickly” and back the bill unanimously.

“We feel strongly that fire chiefs should have the ability to choose how they issue burn permits and that mandating a fee for the online service could result in fewer people seeking permits to burn,” he said.

The measure would tell the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to let municipalities purchase the third party software and services for open burning permits, putting in place the missing legal language that caused officials to pull the plug on the online permits recently.

Hickey and Chris McLaughlin, also of West Gardiner, started the Warden’s Report together in 2012 because they thought taxpayers were coughing up an outrageous fee to get online burning permits.

In addition, they said, residents sometimes had a hard time catching up with fire wardens who could issue handwritten permits for free.

So they came up with a website that could issue the permits and collect data about the open burns so that fire and forestry personnel could check easily to see when and where open burning permits had been issued.

They said the site is saving towns and residents a lot of money. Hickey said his town used to pay three part-time fire wardens $700 annually to deal mostly with the permits. Now it doesn’t have to do that since residents can go online for free.

Between their site and burningpermit.com, about 70 Maine towns rely in part on sites that offer residents free permits online. Advocates said the sites save municipalities and residents tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Hickey said his site serves about 315,000 Mainers in 60 towns. It has issued about 40,000 permits since it began, 13,000 of them last year. That’s more than the state issued, he said, even though its reach is much wider.

Hickey said he thinks the state decision was off the mark legally. He said he doesn’t think officials understood that even though the permits are issued from the website, the entire process for each town is overseen by the fire chiefs and wardens who hail from that municipality, something they’re assigned to do by law.

Doing it online instead of in person, Hickey said, simply makes it more convenient and efficient.

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