It's estimated the Municipality of West Hants owes the fire department about $667,000
© Carole Morris-Underhill
The Windsor Fire Department has been operating in Windsor since 1881 and serving West Hants for more than 60 years.
Windsor Fire Chief Scott Burgess says the fire department is nearing the point of unsustainability if West Hants council doesn't soon provide payment for services rendered.
Speaking on behalf of the Windsor Fire Department's executive, Burgess noted the WFD is owed more than $666,000 to date for services rendered.
“We are coming to a very close time in unsustainability here. We can't continue to do this and continue to be unpaid,” said Burgess in an interview with the Journal.
“We want to protect their citizens, we want to work with West Hants staff and council. We've offered more ways than many to do that,” he added, noting they would be more than willing to try mediation.
The Municipality of West Hants and the Windsor Fire Department last signed a contract in 2009-10. Negotiations on a new contract began to fall apart around that same time.
“Three years ago, they informed us that a motion passed that (indicated) they would hold back $40,000 per fiscal year until... a successful contract was negotiated and signed,” said Burgess.
That amount was withheld in the 2011-12 fiscal year, and at the May 7, 2013 committee of the whole meeting, West Hants council recommended holding back an additional $40,000 for 2012-13. The money was recorded as a deferred expenditure for the prior year.
Until April 2013, the WFD was still receiving lump sum payments for their services — just not as much due to the hold back.
Then, at council's April 9, 2013 meeting, West Hants council passed a motion to change how they fund the WFD. They requested detailed receipts be presented before payment would be issued. This change does not affect any of the other fire departments that serve West Hants.
Since that motion passed, the WFD has not been paid for their services. The department also hasn't provided the municipality with any receipts. They have, however, continued to respond to emergency calls.
“Any of these motions on payment, or arrangements, or hold backs, we were never any part of the discussion. They were always sent to us in a letter after the fact. And unfortunately, we had no input into any of them,” said Burgess, noting doing so “doesn't allow two-way communication.”
Last year, all fire departments in the municipality received a five per cent increase. Burgess said that means the WFD is owed $80,000 for the two years of hold back, $89,250 for Station 2 in Vaughan, and $497,595 for Station 1 in Windsor for a total of $666,845 since March 2014.
Confirmation from West Hants CAO Cheryl Chislett concerning the financial figures presented has not yet been provided. The Hants Journal requested these figures on April 25, and again on April 29.
Warden Richard Dauphinee said he couldn’t confirm the amount owing, but said the funds are accruing and are available when the fire department brings in their receipts.
“It’s not put in the general tax rate; it’s not given to any other fire departments. It’s still there,” said Dauphinee in an interview.
A question of receipts
Although the fire department has been chided for not handing in the required receipts to the municipality for payment, the fire chief says what people don't understand is the complexity of the non-profit society's operations.
Burgess said contrary to rumour, the WFD has one set of books that are audited every year and presented to the Canadian Revenue Agency and to the Registry of Joint Stocks.
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“We have done nothing wrong that anyone has brought to our attention or showed us. All of our accounting practices are up to modern day standards,” said Burgess. “But, because of integrated operations, we sometimes purchase things on one side or the other. We invoice different parties, not unlike the municipality itself.”
As such, he said it's not as plain and simple as laying every receipt on the table.
Burgess said the executive is willing to sit down with West Hants staff and explain their bookkeeping methods in order to try to reach some common ground. The chief has requested council consider allowing the two entities to meet, but, to date, this request has not been granted.
Burgess said changing how they do business could jeopardize the WFD's buying power and co-purchasing arrangements that they have in place with other fire departments and other municipal units.
He noted that being able to partner with others on projects means they save the taxpayers thousands of dollars on capital expenditures.
“At the end of the day, the cost efficiencies... (go) back to West Hants and back to the taxpayer.”
Dauphinee said he doesn’t understand why the fire department cannot provide the municipality with receipts.
“There’s a town account and a rural account. It should be pretty simple. We’re not going to pay for the Town of Windsor’s fuel and the Town of Windsor is not going to pay for our fuel,” said Dauphinee, using gas receipts as an example.
“Maybe I’m making it sound too simple. I don’t know. I’m not condemning the fire department. We just haven’t seen a good reason why, if they can do it for one, they can’t do it for another.”
How they are paying the bills
A reoccurring question being posed by citizens and politicians alike is how the WFD can afford to operate without receiving funds from the municipality.
The answer is they've postponed all capital projects, dipped into their reserves, and pinched pennies.
Burgess said the fire department has always been financially prudent, setting aside funds for the eventual replacement of trucks, gear and other necessary equipment.
“Part of doing proper business is to forecast that through, and set money aside; same as the municipality itself. They have reserves. We have what we call capital reserves and we look at it the same way,” he said.
Burgess said when a joint fire advisory committee was formed and began investigating in 2007 how best to provide fire service between Windsor and West Hants, the fire department halted making any large purchases.
“We started to hold back on projects in 2007 to work with everybody. And this is how we've accumulated some of our savings,” said Burgess.
The joint committee couldn't come to an agreeable cost-sharing arrangement after much discussion on the Cyril Hare report, which was published in 2008. The report suggested the current regional arrangement for fire services was the most beneficial for the area.
It was shortly thereafter that the WFD and municipality began experiencing contractual problems.
“In essence, we've been without guaranteed money, really, since 2009-10,” said Burgess. He explained that without having a contract in place, they couldn't effectively plan for the future. As such, money was set aside in hopes of securing a long-range contract, one that would be at least five years long, with the municipality.
“Most contractors or suppliers of service would have terminated (service) long before this. We feel that it is more important to serve our citizens, to have the safety of our citizens a priority.” Windsor Fire Chief Scott Burgess
The WFD has been drawing on those reserves to stay afloat.
“It's held up many capital projects, like truck replacements, breathing apparatus replacements, radios. There's all kinds of projects that we are waiting to use this money for, that we need,” he said, adding that it's uncommon for the organization to sit on that much money.
Burgess said they have been operating as lean as possible in hopes of striking an agreement with West Hants.
He feels the entire region will benefit if they can work out an agreement.
“Forecasting forward, we know that in the next five to 10 years, we can save at least $2 million per municipal unit by partnering in the structure that we currently have on capital replacements,” said Burgess.
Unless the WFD begins making headway with West Hants, Burgess fears they will have few options to continue to provide fire service for rural residents and businesses.
“At some point, we're going to have to basically explain that this is unsustainable on a go-forward basis unless we receive payment based on our old payment arrangement, and work towards a common negotiated service agreement or contract or... some kind of written document,” said Burgess.
Since the issues between the WFD and West Hants council entered the public conscience about two years ago, there have been calls for better co-operation between the two units.
“Most contractors or suppliers of service would have terminated (service) long before this. We feel that it is more important to serve our citizens, to have the safety of our citizens a priority,” said Burgess.
The chief says the fire department does more than just respond to fire calls, they work with town and municipal staff on emergency preparedness.
“There's actually a protocol and directive that we initiated years ago of linking the Falmouth system to the Windsor system in an emergency via the fire department and the fire hoses,” said Burgess.
The beneficial relationship between the fire department and the municipality would end if council opts to formally part ways with the WFD. Burgess hopes they will allow staff to work through the remaining contract issues so that the WFD can resume normal operations.
“We've done different things that benefit both West Hants and Windsor as a whole region. We're very proud of that and we continue to do that.”
Dauphinee said he would like to see the issue resolved sooner rather than later.
“It’s come to the point that something just has to be settled. As far as not having money to run on, the money is here. It’s just we won’t write it in one big cheque. We have to have something to back it up,” said Dauphinee.