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.
Windsor's fire chief says the department is “baffled” by West Hants council's recent decision to send the volunteer organization a registered letter requesting they reply within 14 days of receipt.
Council's decision to request, in writing, detailed answers to the municipality's main concerns with the current fire service arrangement was presented at their April 22 committee of the whole meeting.
Windsor Fire Chief Scott Burgess, who has been serving the Windsor Fire Department for 26 years, said the WFD executive was under the impression council was not making any motions or decisions pertaining to the outstanding fire services issues until a conflict of interest allegation against one of their councillors had been resolved.
When word arrived about the pending letter, Burgess said they were caught off guard.
“We're baffled by this letter. It caught us by surprise,” said Burgess, who indicated that as of April 24, the WFD has not received the piece of registered mail.
The issues West Hants council wants answered are the same ones they presented in November 2013, save one that they have already resolved. The topics include: a new way of doing business, ownership of fire apparatus, concerns over having a paid fire chief, the desire to have a contract and payment schedule similar to the one the Town of Windsor has, discussion on the need for a new fire station, and changing the payment structure for the South West Hants Fire Society. Council noted the issue concerning the South West Hants Fire Society would not be included in the registered letter.
A look at the ongoing dispute
The municipality and WFD have been without a contract for about four years, with much of the dispute playing out in the public eye for the last two years.
In 2012, West Hants commissioned a study to examine the costs associated with maintaining their contract with the WFD and the feasibility of branching out on their own. The study, written by Wayne Swinamer, a former Windsor firefighter, was presented Jan. 29, 2013. The initial versions of the report suggested the municipality would see significant cost savings if they created their own fire department to cover the area currently being served by the WFD. Construction of a fire station in Garlands Crossing was suggested, as well as future consideration for a substation in Falmouth.
In July 2013, the WFD countered the study's figures. A panel of experts hosted a public meeting to discuss their findings. Mike Eddy, a former chief director of the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service with 30 years of experience within the fire services industry, Aaron Wright, a chartered accountant, and John Redden, a public fire protection specialist, reviewed the service. They concluded the Windsor Fire Department was providing an excellent service for the region at a fair cost.
Later in the year, West Hants council indicated they did not want a formal contract with the WFD, but an arrangement similar to the one the fire department has with the Town of Windsor. In November, they presented the WFD with a list of seven concerns or issues they wanted addressed.
The WFD executive returned to council Feb. 24, 2014 to present their response to the questions. At that time, the fire chief requested a chance to meet with West Hants staff to try to work through some of the remaining issues. That request was denied.
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At a committee of the whole meeting the following night, West Hants CAO Cheryl Chislett noted that their legal advisors suggested they not make any formal motions pertaining to the fire department until the outstanding conflict of interest investigation involving Coun. Victor Swinamer was settled. They could, however, still discuss the topic.
The alleged conflict of interest that involves Swinamer, who is the fire chief's father-in-law, is currently being investigated by the attorney general's office. Council requested that the provincial authority investigate to see if Swinamer was in the wrong for voting on matters pertaining to the WFD. Swinamer only began doing so after West Hants council made a motion instructing staff to “begin the process of establishing an all-inclusive fire protection service” for the area served by Windsor Fire Department.
Also at the February meeting, Chislett noted it's the responsibility of staff to do the legwork for negotiating services.
“It's not council's mandate to negotiate contracts,” she said at the meeting. “It's staffs' responsibility to negotiate contracts, come back to council for final approval. You may or may not ever accept anything we recommend. That's your right to do that.”
Staff was not instructed to resume talks with the WFD.
In addition to the aforementioned items, council made a motion April 9, 2013 to change how they fund the Windsor Fire Department. Instead of providing lump sum payments several times a year, council opted to issue payment only when detailed receipts were presented. This decision only affects the WFD, and not the other volunteer fire departments serving the county.
Although the WFD has continued to provide fire protection to West Hants, they have not received any payment since that motion passed. The WFD has also not provided any receipts to the municipality.
Stay tuned to the website for an in-depth look at the amount owing, and the financial situation currently facing the Windsor Fire Department.
Letter topics already addressed
Burgess says he feels the executive already addressed much of council's concerns earlier in the year and questions how much clearer they can be.
Burgess provided the need for a new fire department as an example. At their special meeting with West Hants Feb. 24, Burgess indicated a new fire station was not needed at that time, but could be revisited in seven to 10 years.
“We still stand by that. Nothing has changed,” said Burgess. “As far as we're concerned, that's not on the table. There was no opposition to our presentation that night about it so we assumed they were alright with that.”
Burgess said he feels they could work through the outstanding issues with West Hants staff if given the chance to do so.
“We know we can work with West Hants staff,” said Burgess. “We know we can have a service agreement probably ready in a matter of a week or two, if we're allowed to get to that (stage)... Unfortunately, we are not allowed to do that at this point.”