Read the Hants Journal for the latest news regarding the Windsor Fire Department.
West Hants council has decided to change how they approach funding the Windsor Fire Department.
In the past, they provided lump sum payments. Now, they're breaking that payment up.
During council's regular monthly meeting April 9, Warden Richard Dauphinee made a motion that the municipality continue to fund the operational expenses of the Windsor Fire Department based on receipts submitted to West Hants monthly. The remaining funds that the municipality would have paid out to the department will now be held in a West Hants capital reserve account.
It's been more than two years since the municipality and fire department have had a signed fire services contract in place. In spite of this, the firefighters have continued to provide the service, and West Hants has continued to pay for it. The unsigned contract, however, has caused friction, with West Hants even commissioning a report to examine the costs associated with continuing to use the fire department and the costs of creating their own fire department.
The idea to break down the payment schedule was first discussed at council's April 2 committee of the whole meeting.
“I think we need to move ahead. This has been on everybody's plate for too long. It's taken up too much staff time and it's stressful for everybody involved,” said Dauphinee at the committee meeting.
“We go to bed thinking about it, you wake up thinking about it seven days a week. You go on vacation, for two days you're still thinking about it,” he said.
Dauphinee said the fire department doesn't seem to have any contractual issues with Windsor and noted that West Hants could benefit from adopting this simple payment model while they figure out what they're going to do with fire services for the region.
“Maybe that's why we need to pay for operations, even on the short term... until we can get things straightened out so we know where our taxpayer's dollars are going. That's nothing against the fire department. They deliver an excellent service,” said Dauphinee. “We're the keepers of the taxpayer's money. We have to do it right.”
At the council meeting, councillors Shirley Pineo and Jennifer Daniels voted against the motion, while the remaining councillors, with the exception of Victor Swinamer who declared a conflict of interest, voted in favour.
Prior to the vote, Pineo said she feared requiring the receipts would result in more work for the volunteer firefighters.
“I just think it's a lot of extra work to put on volunteers. I just don't know how they're going to be able to split things,” she said, citing the difficulty of separating gas receipts between Windsor and West Hants as an example.
Council denies chief's request
Fire Chief Scott Burgess issued a letter to council that was received at the April 2 meeting, discussed, then brought back up April 9. In the letter, he formally requested council grant the department three months leeway to complete a comprehensive review of the fire services issues.
Council approved they decline Burgess' request. They also agreed to send the fire department the original contract that West Hants proposed in 2011 to see if the Windsor Fire Department was interested in negotiating the issues.
Talk of the original contract was discussed at great length at the April 2 committee of the whole meeting.
“The thing is, we hired a lawyer. The lawyer said 'do not sign the contract,' that the contract needed some additional points,” said Pineo.
Negotiations reportedly broke down between the municipality and fire department after the lawyer's letter was presented.
CAO Cheryl Chislett told council that the fire department did not offer a counter proposal, as is generally the case when negotiating a contract.
There were four key issues the lawyer suggested council seek to change, the CAO said. One such issue involved ownership of assets.
“We would continue to pay the operations but we would like to work out some kind of arrangement where West Hants owned the equipment,” Chislett said April 2.
“The other one was, which is standard in any agreement, a one-year opt-out clause. That would be for both parties,” she added.
Another item was for the department to present quarterly statistical information and annual financial statements to the municipality. Finally, Chislett said, they wanted the Southwest Hants department to have its own contract.
Daniels said she wanted council to “open the lines of communication again” and urged council to let the chief know of their desire to get back to the negotiating table.
On April 9, council agreed to send a letter to Burgess, explaining their intentions and including the original contract.
Both motions come months after speculation that the municipality was looking to part ways with the firefighting force.
Burgess said in a brief phone interview April 19 that he wanted to wait until he received the letter from council to comment.
“I have yet to receive the official letter or notification and don't feel comfortable commenting at this point but look forward to working with West Hants to resolve the issues,” he said.
Fire department financial statements won't be received at council
When discussing the fire services contract, council was informed that the Windsor Fire Department finally submitted their annual financial statements to the municipality.
Coun. Pineo asked if they would be made available to council.
Chislett said she was not prepared to receive them at council, which would make them public information.
Although financial statements are readily available at most annual general meetings, Chislett said she didn't feel comfortable accepting them at council.
She suggested anyone interested in obtaining the financial statements should contact the fire departments directly.
“Brooklyn just had their annual meeting and they passed out their financial statements at the end of the meeting so they became public information at that time,” said Pineo, to which the CAO said they became public from the fire department's perspective, not council's.
“It's the job of the department, I think,” said Chislett. “Yes, they should provide it to us because we're major funders. That's fine — to be on file here. Maybe I'm wrong. It's just my opinion. I think it's up to the departments to make them public.”
Dauphinee agreed, noting people can go through Joint Stocks to obtain the records.
“The volunteer fire departments do a good job. Keep it within. They do show us their financial statements and we keep it confidential,” he said.
Chislett said council historically received them over the years.
“I haven't done it for the past couple of years,” she said.