Funding freeze has Windsor's fire chief concerned for future

Carole Morris-Underhill
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It's estimated the Municipality of West Hants owes the fire department about $667,000

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.

“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.

 

 

Next steps

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.

 

Organizations: Windsor Fire Department, West Hants council, Municipality of West Hants Hants Journal Canadian Revenue Agency Registry of Joint Stocks

Geographic location: Windsor, Hants, Vaughan West Hants Hants County Nova Scotia

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Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • Leah Rissesco
    May 12, 2014 - 15:45

    I do believe the Municipality is breaking their own rules. Just my opinion, however, there are some developers who may have to put an abrupt halt to any and all development. According to the "Municipality of the District of West Hants- Municipal Planning Strategy" Page 81, Policy 9.1.10 It shall be the policy of Council to consider proposals for grouped single and two unit dwellings consisting of six or more units in the General Resource zone by development agreement subject to the following: (k) adequate emergency protection services, including fire, police and ambulance, can be provided. Again I my opinion, that would adversely effect folks like Terra Nova, McDow, Brison and perhaps others that I am not familiar with or where they build? There are already questions about an inadequate number of police officers for West Hants. If the fire service is not sustained by reason of non payment wouldn't that make all of those development agreements null and void because of the Municipality's actions (or lack there of)? That would be two strikes out of a possible three. I would challenge the Municipality to take a vote on changing the payment methods of any other service provider that they deal with (without including them in the conversation) And see how they respond. Let's see them treat all service providers the same. I, as a tax paying citizen would like to see the operating receipts of Waste Management, RCMP, and any other by contract service provider for West Hants. If the answer is "Well that's different." Than it is an inadequate answer and it is unacceptable behaviour by our Municipality? They are now putting one of the few sources of revenue for West Hants in jeopardy. That would be an irresponsible thing to do.

  • judy
    May 01, 2014 - 14:54

    Come on West Hants and Windsor, stop this foolishness. This fighting has gone on way to long. If the top guns can't get along with one another appointment someone from outside to get this settled. There always seems to be something they are up in arms about. Rink, roads, subdivisions, etc.. If it's personal, duke it out, if not, don't put it on the shoulders of us the residents. Before long someone is going to DIE in a fire,could be a senior, someone middle aged or a child. God forbid this happens.Then who is going to bear the brunt of this tragedy. Stop letting us down and do something right for a change. Please represent your positions with dignity and responsibility.

  • JIMMYD
    May 01, 2014 - 14:40

    Just a couple questions for West Hants Councillors. Does the RCMP provide receipts for their time and mileage including fuel receipts ? Does the waste management company turn in receipts for mileage, fuel, tonnage of waste hauled etc? Also if the WFD stops supporting the people of West Hants tomorrow exactly what is the plan for fire services. Council tells us they have a plan but I for one think its time "the plan" be brought out for the people to consider its effectiveness. Without WFD being 10 minutes from my property I wouldlike to know what the response time would be in case we suffered a fire. Why is this plan not been explained to the people....is it because it is either ridiculous or worse doesn't exist.

    • Aware
      May 01, 2014 - 15:37

      Depending on your area if it takes WFD right now to get to you in 10 probably around 20 for a neighboring department depending on their staffing for the call, etc. Could be as fast as 17 could be as slow as 25-30 probably.

    • JIMMYD
      May 02, 2014 - 07:18

      Ever watch a fire Aware.? A lot can burn in an extra 10/15 minutes...I would much rather have a 10 minute crew here in 10 than watch my house burn for another 10/15 minutes or so while I listen to the sirens in the distance...

    • aware
      May 02, 2014 - 14:15

      JimmyD, I'm not disagreeing with you. If we had to rely on an initial response from a neighboring department it's more than likely that somebody would lose their home. It takes around 3 minutes from fire start for a typical living room fire to go from small fire to fully involved room and it just increases exponentially.

  • R.A Ratified
    May 01, 2014 - 11:47

    This is exactly what West Hants wants. Everyone to get tired of the issue and give in. Things need to be carefully administered on both sides so that all is fair and equitable. We do receive great service from all Fire Depts. Both Windsor and West Hants. Insurance already is at a premium for home owners, we don't need any more increases. Response times from all parties are optimal, doesn't council take that into account? Liability and service of equipment is in the hands of professionals, (the fire society) not a group of councillors who know nothing about running a fire dept. nor should they even take on such an extracurricular business. Municipalities are to encourage economic growth and be tasked to encourage shared services that in the end, will benefit those who they represent.(the general public not themselves or a few chosen ones) Take heed, for one scapegoat will lead to another....

  • John
    May 01, 2014 - 11:10

    Embarrassing and foolish yes. Lets stop it by providing the receipts, it's not an invoice, any proper bookkeeper has receipts for their expenses. Come on. There is a formal "registered letter now", just do it and stop the foolishness. Problem solved.

    • Leah Rissesco
      May 12, 2014 - 15:51

      As previously stated, that was not the original terms of service. I would challenge Council to change method of payment for any other contracted service provider without their permission.

  • Jill
    April 30, 2014 - 19:44

    Perhaps the Fire Chief's should have receipt writing added to his job description. Every fire call outside of town limits should be charged a mileage rate. The rate could include gas and maintenance and be charged per truck. The invoices written will please the Warden and WFD will no doubt receive more than what they asking now. Anything that will get this embarrassing situation solved. But let's be honest; this is not a cut and dry issue of no receipts.

  • Mat
    April 30, 2014 - 16:45

    Starting today cut the fire service to West Hants. Let West Hants start from scratch as of today.

    • Ryan
      May 01, 2014 - 21:12

      That would be interesting to see what they'd do in that case but we all know Windsor would never do that to the citizens.

  • Ha!
    April 30, 2014 - 15:37

    This really ultimately comes down to Windsor vs West Hants. It's unfortunate that the fire department is involved in all reality. If everybody could just work together (as I believe Windsor council suggested) we could see this area grow. As long as we're fighting we will never grow. Not so proud to be part of this community.

  • Pat
    April 30, 2014 - 15:22

    I understand Windsor not wanting to stop fire service to WH BUT if they are not getting paid for a service in time it will have to be cut.The people of WH would see a great tax jump and house insurance going up but if that is what the people want give it to them.They elected the coucil that can't get along with others outside no matter what the issue is.Why was it so different years ago when both Windsor coucil & WH would meet after their meetings and go to a watering hole and socialize,were friends with each other..even the communities got along and helped each other.Oh I forgot there was respect back then and each peorson had a say and the others listened...these coucillors now do not set a great sample for the youth of today.Something needs to be done so both parties should step up and do their part and get the partnership back!!

    • John
      April 30, 2014 - 16:08

      PRODUCE THE RECEIPTS!

  • Roger Beaton
    April 30, 2014 - 15:16

    Let West Hants build there damn fire department and the WFD can serve the town of Windsor. I find it sad that it has come to this. We need to be realistic and understand that West Hants wants nothing to do with Windsor or the WFD. West Hants is interested in one thing and one thing only - themselves.

  • John
    April 30, 2014 - 14:02

    My My My, West Hants does not have to the same agreement with eveyone. Does every union have the same agreement NO. That is why you have contacts and agreements. Its a negotation. If WFD is different that others so be it. West Hants does not have to include WFD in their decisions. Every business that send in a tender to a Municipality are not included in all discussion. That is why we elected a coucil and warden to make decisions on behalf of the residents, not WFD. If they would like WFD input they will ask for it. Just like the have asked for RECEIPTS and WFD WON'T provide them. Canada Revenue has no issue with books as long as everything is transparent however Canada Revenue could care a less if something is being paid by West Hants fund or Windsors as they are not being changed for that expense, West Hants may be when it should be Windsor. If it pertains to WEST HANTS in the RECEIPTS then I am sure they won't have any issue either. You want your money, SHOW THE RECEIPTS but they are not going to pay for items that should be charged to WINDSOR. Your money is waiting when you do. Stop complaining and do it. As Mr. Burgess says "Part of doing business is financial planning and forcasting" well that is what West Hants is trying to do. But not to the point of padding WFD capital reserve and gaining amoritzation of thoes capital assets. Those saving should be going back to West Hants also. Mr. Burges states there was a report completed however it is still West Hants option to follow the reports or not. You state most business wouldn't tolerate this type of action from West Hants. Well I don't know of any business that could not provide RECEIPTS and EXPENSES in detail to justify their charges. STOP COMPLAINING AND SHOW YOUR RECEIPTS AND GET PAID. DONE

  • malcolm
    April 30, 2014 - 13:54

    If they needed the money why did they not cash their cheques instead of letting them go stale dated?

  • Stephen
    April 30, 2014 - 12:01

    Why should West Hants treat Windsor different then the other departments in the Municipality.