YARMOUTH, N.S. – The Town of Yarmouth says efforts to identify a new cost-sharing formula for local fire dispatch services have been exhausted without finding a solution. As a result it will begin the layoff process of dispatchers and contract out a dispatch service for itself.
This means the other fire departments who have used the Yarmouth dispatch service – and who haven’t already left for another service provider – will have to do the same.
The town had been looking for the departments that use the service to pay more towards the annual $260,000 cost of it.
“On Nov. 11 the town received word that the 24 fire departments who rely on the town dispatch service had failed to reach a consensus on cost-sharing. Seven of those departments have already left and opted to sign contracts with call centres outside the immediate area,” reads a Nov. 13 media release the town issued. “That forces the town to begin the layoff process and prepare for contracting out the service for itself.”
This timeframe has not yet been determined.
“The union representing the dispatchers has asked to discuss the terms and conditions of the layoff in bargaining, which resumed Tuesday morning, Nov. 13,” the media release said. The town says the date for ceasing the service has not yet been set, but it has advised the other fire departments that they should begin to make alternate arrangements for dispatch if they have not already.
The town says its dispatch service will be contracted out to a provider in western Nova Scotia. Two proposals have been received by the town but have not yet been fully evaluated.
TOWN GAVE NOTICE IN APRIL
In April, during contract negotiations with the union representing the town’s professional firefighters and dispatchers, the town had indicated its intention to lay off the four dispatchers and seek outside dispatch services to save it money. The town said it was covering about $160,000 of the annual cost of the service. It said the 24 departments in Digby, Yarmouth and Shelburne counties using the service were each paying around $100 a month. The Municipality of Yarmouth was covering the balance.
At a public meeting in May, fire departments expressed that they would be willing to see the amount they paid increase if it meant saving the service, although it was also noted there are some departments that are cash strapped.
In August the town pitched a proposal to the departments saying the Yarmouth service could be saved if all departments agreed to a one-cent tax rate increase to cover the cost of the service. The town said for a resident with a $100,000 assessment, this would have equaled $10 a year.
In the absence of a tax rate increase, the town had issued a pay formula to the 24 departments – based on a five-year average of usage of the dispatch service – to pay for the service this year.
For a six-month billing period, the costs varied from a low of $76 for Richmond to a high of $42,140 for the Yarmouth Fire Department. For some departments the six-month bill would not have been high: Hectanooga ($479), Lakes and District ($403) and Middle Upper Ohio ($555). For others it would have been steep in comparison to the roughly $1,200 a year they paid – examples included Meteghan ($9,280), Island and Barrington Passage ($10,365), Shelburne Fire Department ($10,768) and Woods and Shag Harbour ($15,509).
NO NEW PROPOSAL FORTHCOMING
Initially the town had sought an Oct. 1 deadline for the fire departments to respond. It then agreed to a 45-day extension as departments wanted to look into how the cost of mutual aid – which the town doesn’t pay for – might factor into the dispatch equation. But even after the extension not much had changed.
In its media release, the town says it received back a response that re-offered the same proposal that had been previously tabled, minus the seven fire departments that have already contracted out their dispatch services. Those departments are: Barrington/Port Latour; Island/Barrington Passage; Shelburne; Meteghan, Salmon River and Hectanooga.
“The proposal would pay the town $31,400 for a service that costs over $260,000, forcing taxpayers of the Town of Yarmouth to continue to subsidize dispatch from Shelburne to Clare areas,” the town’s release reads. The town said the proposal was intended to go to the end of this fiscal year, but there was no commitment to increase contributions, or to remain with the service beyond March 31, 2019.
The town says it was disappointing the one cent tax rate proposal was “not considered.”
“One penny on the tax rate could have saved this service and yet not one fire department or municipal unit would agree to that as the solution,” said Mayor Pam Mood. “The town has repeatedly said we are more than willing to pay well above market value to save the dispatch jobs, but in a fair manner. That did not happen.
“The response proves our point that no one would do what we have done for so many years, and that is to subsidize other municipalities and fire departments and pay more than market value,” added Mood. “Like us, each of the municipal units is considering their taxpayers . . . We have done everything reasonable to avoid this outcome. We just cannot continue to expect taxpayers of the Town of Yarmouth to subsidize the fire services from Clare around to Shelburne.”
The town noted in its media release that the Town of Bridgewater contracts out its dispatch services for approximately $7,800 annually.
DECISION DISCUSSED AT ARGYLE COUNCIL TABLE
There was some discussion about the town’s decision at the Municipality of Argyle’s Nov. 13 monthly meeting. Argyle’s CAO Alain Muise said it was true that the departments had failed to reach a consensus on cost-sharing. About the one-cent tax rate Muise said that would not have been possible to do this year because it was past the taxation timeframe.
Councillors around the table expressed disappointment the local service won’t continue.
“I was definitely hoping that we could keep it the way it presently is now, being dispatched from Yarmouth,” said Councillor Glenn Diggdon, who said it was evident things were “breaking apart.” He said for the protection of its residents he would like to see the municipality “start looking sooner than later to make a move towards another dispatch service.”
“It looks like we’re going to be going down that road anyway. I say let’s start to get our ducks in a row and make sure we do it right with the transition,” he said.
It was mentioned during the meeting that the municipalities of Argyle and Yarmouth did coordinate to have Digby dispatch chat with local fire department volunteers given the uncertainty of the local dispatch service.
About moving away from the local dispatch service, Councillor Guy Surette called the town’s decision “very short sighted.”
“I’ve been involved in the fire department for 38 years,” he said, saying he still felt there was room for negotiation. But it is what it is, Surette said, echoing the comments of Diggdon that the municipality needs to look ahead to who will be providing the dispatch services.
Muise said the municipality will look at this with the other partners that they will be purchasing the service with, which, right now he said, is the Municipality of Yarmouth and possibly also the Woods Harbour/Shag Harbour department.
“My only comment is we’re not responsible for the elimination of dispatch service,” Muise said during the meeting. “We may have not come to the table with the town’s wish, but we are not responsible for the elimination of the service.”
Muise, who coordinated the response of the departments, acknowledged there was a funding gap within the service – and a big one at that, he said – and he said he respected the town’s need to fill that gap. But the degree of time that the municipalities and fire departments we were given to fill that gap – whereas it’s been an issue for years – was too short, Muise said. He said trying to lessen the gap over a longer period of time may have worked out better.
“There are a lot of other scenarios where the funding gap is huge, does it happen instantly to fix?” he said, adding, “Was our response generous? No, I would say it wasn’t. To go back to the town and say same deal, that’s not a great response. I acknowledge that.
“The fact of the matter is we weren’t going to pick up the cost of everyone else that had walked away from the service when the town said it was going to eliminate the service,” he said. “We had less customers, so it made the problem worse for everyone.”
It was mentioned the overall dispatch situation will be a topic of conversation at a mutual aid association meeting happening this Thursday.
The Tri-County Vanguard, meanwhile, reached out to the union for comment about the town’s decision. A union rep said they would have a response later to provide.
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