UPDATED: May 14
Although the Windsor Fire Department has been without an agreement with the Municipality of West Hants for about four years, the volunteer firefighting force continues to provide service and mutual aid to rural residents.
West Hants is severing its long-standing ties with the Windsor Fire Department – but that decision was far from unanimous.
During council's regular monthly meeting Tuesday night, May 13, Deputy Warden Gary Cochrane made a motion for council to move forward with the construction of “one or two” fire stations, as deemed necessary, to service the area of West Hants currently receiving fire protection from the Windsor Fire Department. The same motion requested the CAO “discuss the orderly phase-out of service” with the WFD.
Windsor firefighters have been providing fire protection for West Hants residents for more than 60 years. Despite not having a signed contract with the municipality for the past four years, the WFD has continued to answer their emergency calls.
Leading up to the motion to sever ties, councillors were discussing the letter Windsor Fire Chief Scott Burgess had sent in reply to the municipality’s registered letter.
Although the chief's letter was received at the municipal office on May 8, it wasn't until the night of May 13 that councillors had the chance to read the letter.
They took a moment to do so during the meeting.
In the letter, Burgess asks council to allow the WFD executive the chance to present at West Hants' committee of the whole meeting May 27.
“It's just plain stall tactics,” said Cochrane. “Everybody is right; we've got to do something. It's up to us to make that decision.”
Cochrane proceeded to remind Warden Richard Dauphinee that the warden has a copy of the motion he was about to make. (Cochrane had the motion before him, typed out on a piece of paper.)
After the motion was made, and seconded by Coun. Tom Brown, councillors were granted permission to discuss it.
Cochrane said the issues with the WFD have been going on for far too long, alleging there “is an objective” to drag the issue out for more than half of their municipal term.
The Hants Journal reported earlier this month that the WFD is finding it difficult to continue to serve the county without payment – the municipality changed the way they fund the WFD more than a year ago and have not paid them since April 2013. The deputy warden said after hearing this, he felt like the chief was threatening to pull service.
“I'm afraid for our residents. We're being held at ransom, that's what it is,” said Cochrane.
He further pointed out that the municipality is “running out of building time” for the new station.
No more rash decisions
When Coun. Jennifer Daniels took the floor, she urged council not to make any decisions in haste.
She said she could see why the WFD executive was confused after receiving council's registered letter in April.
She noted that the municipal solicitor suggested council refrain from making any motions pertaining to the fire service until the alleged conflict of interest investigation involving Coun. Victor Swinamer was resolved. Swinamer is the father-in-law of the Windsor fire chief. The alleged conflict is being investigated by the provincial attorney general's office.
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Daniels said she understands “the Windsor Fire Department's confusion” over receiving the registered letter because council has been sending mixed messages.
“Meanwhile, they're sitting idle waiting for us to untangle ourselves and I think that is what we need to do before we make any rash decisions to spend taxpayer's money for a duplication of service,” said Daniels.
She suggested council work towards cleaning up the number of motions on the floor pertaining to fire services before forging ahead with a plan to go out on their own.
“I really think we're in a mess. We're in a motion mess. I would like to see that cleared up before we... make any more decisions,” she said.
Coun. Mike Campbell, who has been a vocal supporter of council working out its differences with the WFD, pleaded with his fellow elected officials to consider the Ivany Report recommendations and find some common ground to work together.
“I think it's about time we cut to the chase, cut the cheque, resolve it and get on with the rest of it,” he said.
After much talk around the table, the motion passed, with Cochrane, Reed Allen, Brown, Randy Matheson, Shirley Pineo and Dauphinee voting in favour. The three councillors voting in opposition were Campbell, Daniels and Swinamer.
When approached for comment following the council meeting, which lasted nearly five hours and wrapped up just before midnight, Dauphinee said it was late and that he'd like to have time to get his thoughts together. He suggested a publicist may be hired to release statements regarding the fire services issue.
WFD distressed, saddened by council's choice
The Windsor Fire Department's executive issued a statement May 14 in response to council's motion.
Burgess said the decision “deeply distressed” the firefighting organization as they were hopeful an agreement could have been reached with the municipality.
“The motion passed by West Hants council last night makes it clear to us that they had already made up their mind to terminate our relationship. We do not believe that this decision reflects the will of the residents that we have served for so many years,” said Burgess in the statement.
“All over Nova Scotia we are seeing municipalities dissolve and service costs rise. Now, more than ever, we think towns and municipalities should be looking at shared services for the benefit of the citizens. It saddens us that egos and personal politics seem to be guiding life-safety decisions.”
The WFD will be meeting over the coming days to determine their response to council's decision.
Stay tuned for more details.