Fire chief requests chance to resume negotiations with West Hants

UPDATED: Feb. 27

Carole Morris-Underhill
Published on February 24, 2014

Warden Richard Dauphinee discusses council's stance on ownership of assets with members of the Windsor Fire Department's executive Feb. 24, 2014.

Carole Morris-Underhill

Windsor's fire chief is requesting West Hants council consider allowing staff and legal counsel to resume negotiations as soon as possible, moving the talks back into a private forum.

However, council isn't ready for that to happen, noting until the investigation into an alleged conflict of interest with a councillor is concluded, they can't make any motions or recommendations.

Scott Burgess, and three fellow Windsor Fire Department executive members, attended a special committee of the whole meeting Feb. 24 in West Hants to answer questions previously posed by council concerning fire services. More than two dozen people attended the committee meeting to hear the 40-minute discussion.

The meeting was scheduled to allow the executive the chance to respond to the seven main issues West Hants council raised Nov. 27. Among the topics were a new way of doing business, ownership of fire apparatus, concerns over having a paid fire chief, the desire to have a contact 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 Southwest Hants Fire Society.



New station not a priority

The chief started the discussion by indicating a new fire station was not needed at this time, but could be revisited in seven to 10 years.

“What will help us greatly (and) immensely will be a signed service agreement in place because it will allow us to get along with our fleet downsizing. We had anticipated that back in 2007 when everything went on hold,” said Burgess. “Over the next number of years, we're combining units and reducing the overall number while maintaining and increasing our pump capacity. Part of that helps us solve the space issue.”

Burgess said they had planned a renovation to the fire hall three years ago but put it on hold when the contract issues with the municipality arose.

“Basically it's not a luxury thing. It's for showers and cleanliness and washroom facilities,” said Burgess, explaining there is just one shower for 80 members.

It was also noted that the Town of Windsor offered their capital portion for the renovation almost three years ago.



Southwest Hants payment

Regarding changing how the municipality pays the capital costs associated with operating Station 2 in Vaughan, the chief said it'd be best to maintain the status quo.

A letter from the Southwest Hants Fire Society that operates Station 2 was accepted at a previous council meeting. It stated that the society “did not wish to be in the middle of payment arrangements, operations or capital, between Windsor Fire Department and the Municipality of the District of West Hants.” It further noted that the society was “content with the arrangements as they currently stand” and that the chief, who is a director with the society, abstained from voting on the matter at their Jan.16 meeting.

Burgess also cited the Municipal Government Act (MGA) to provide further clarity as to whether the municipality could pay the society instead of a registered service provider.

“Further to our research, we did find that the Municipal Government Act doesn't allow for that arrangement anyways, so it's probably not an issue.”



Paid chief position

Deputy Chief Jamie Juteau fielded West Hants' concerns regarding a paid fire chief and noted that in 2001, West Hants was offered a direct partnership but turned it down.

He said the decision to create the paid positions of fire chief and fire inspector was due to liability, safety reasons, and overall stability.

“We ran with a paid chief and fire inspectors from basically 2002 when it was put in place up until the present day,” said Juteau, noting it's only been highlighted as an issue in the past few years.



Equal playing field

In order to address West Hants having the same arrangement as the Town of Windsor, the chief noted that discussion would be linked to solving some of the other issues.

“We tried to figure out what the ramifications would be to our operations, our sustainability, our financing... administration, so there's a whole lot of this that ties directly into No. 1 and No. 2; with No. 1 being a new way of doing business and (No. 2 being) the asset ownership,” said Burgess.

Ownership of assets remained a sticking point throughout the meeting.

Burgess told council that the MGA allows for a fire society to own equipment, and pointed out that the municipality does not own any of the fire apparatus or equipment in the other fire departments serving West Hants.

He said they explored what they thought the impact of having the municipality own their equipment would have.

“It definitely affects our asset base. It definitely affects financing for future equipment, for anything we wish to do,” he noted.

That led the discussion into examining a new way of doing business.

“When you look at all of those items, and all those issues, it really comes down to a new way of doing business. We're not opposed to a new way of doing business,” said Burgess.

The chief said the executive has studied some fire service models in HRM, Kings County and elsewhere. He said they were still studying the effects of not having an agreement, but noted that would make long term planning very difficult.

Burgess encouraged the municipality to allow both sides a chance to discuss the finer points of the fire services issue away from the public spotlight.

“We can't get any more answers until we get together with your staff, your legal, our legal and our people,” said Burgess.

“We're to the point that we feel right now... we're at a standstill with this information and how far we can take it.”

He said since both the municipality and fire department are committed to protecting the citizens, it could be beneficial to work on trying to resolve the remaining issues.

It was noted that council cannot make any decisions on the fire services matter until the alleged conflict of interest investigation of Coun. Victor Swinamer is cleared up.



Back to ownership of assets

Warden Richard Dauphinee took the floor following the WFD's presentation and said it sounded as though the executive was not opposed to trying to work out a better agreement.

“Our legal counsel suggested that we proceed under a policy arrangement rather than a contractual arrangement and I don't think you're saying you're opposed to that,” said Dauphinee.

He noted that the WFD doesn't have a contract with the Town of Windsor and that it seems to be working well.

Dauphinee then explained the concerns over ownership of assets.

“Basically, council's position is that the equipment is paid from public funds and should remain assets of the public. Council does not need to have its crest on the trucks, it does not need to have trucks registered as West Hants vehicles,” he said.

Dauphinee suggested a memorandum of understanding be drafted so that if the volunteers ever walked out en masse, the region wouldn't be left without the necessary equipment to keep citizens protected.

“At least if the equipment is still there, you can bring somebody in and operate until you get things under control so the public continues to have fire protection and that doesn't matter whether it's Windsor, Brooklyn, Summerville – wherever it's at,” he said.



Moving forward

Deputy Warden Gary Cochrane chaired the meeting and stressed that council will have the final say in how they proceed with fire services in the region.

“But the ultimate decision will be made by this council because we have to come up with a uniform method of fire protection so that the volunteer fire departments have the resources and support from this council to keep our communities safe, which they are doing now, and continue with that,” said Cochrane before the meeting became a bit heated.

“I think you can rest assured that it's probably not going to drag on as long as it has in the past. I think a decision has to be made very shortly on it.”

Due to several of council's issues being linked together, the chief requested council consider allowing staff and legal counsel to negotiate and return with a draft service arrangement.

“We're basically handcuffed with no payment and it's not sustainable,” said Burgess a little more than halfway through the meeting. He noted their talks were very much like negotiations, which should be conducted in the proper forum.

The deputy warden reminded the chief “it isn't just staff making those decisions, it's this council that makes the final decision.”



Payment for services rendered

As the meeting neared the end, Dauphinee urged the chief to submit receipts so that the municipality could pay for their services.

“First of all, when you talk about money, please bring your slips in and get paid for your operations any time you want to. The money is there,” said Dauphinee at the meeting. “The money is not being spent in our general account for something else. It's the Windsor Fire Department's money and it's still sitting there.”

In April 2013, council changed how the Windsor Fire Department received payment. At their April 9 meeting, they voted to “continue to fund the operational expenses of the Windsor Fire Department based on receipts submitted monthly” and to set aside the remaining funds in a West Hants capital reserve account. Prior to the motion, the WFD received quarterly, lump sum payments.

Since April of last year, the WFD has not received a cent as they have not provided the detailed invoices council has requested to see.

“We can't debate this in a public forum any longer. Our only concern is moving this forward,” said Burgess.

“The municipal adviser also told us that we shouldn't have to provide receipts because we have a contractual arrangement. He has told us that. I'm sure if you sit him at the table he'll tell you the same thing,” he continued, noting that despite not being paid, they have been providing full coverage for West Hants residents.

Cochrane said he didn't understand why the WFD won't just provide the receipts.

“I for one definitely don't want to see the fire department, the volunteers, go without anything. As the warden indicated, the money is sitting there. But we just wanted to be treated the same as the Town of Windsor,” he said. “You just get paid when receipts are presented.”

The chief again stated the executive wanted to discuss contract details in the proper forum before he expanded on the receipt issue.

“We basically are the same as the RCMP. When they buy bullets, West Hants does not get the receipt,” Burgess began, before Cochrane interrupted, saying “We're not comparing apples to apples here Scott.”

The chief noted that the municipality also doesn't buy the fuel for the snowplow service it contracts out either.

“And again, we're not here to upset you or debate this but we have addressed this with the proper people: Service Nova Scotia. That's who we all work under,” said Burgess.

Both the fire chief and the deputy chief asked if the other fire departments in West Hants were required to present receipts in order to get paid on a quarterly basis. The answer was no.

As the meeting came to a close, the warden said they were just looking for a new way to do business as the old contract was outdated.

At this time, we don't have a contract with you people. We don't have a contract with the other fire departments but (they're) wide open with their figures at all times and we know what the stipends are and who gets what. That's the way it goes.”

Council said they were planning to have another special meeting to discuss fire services but the date was not announced at the meeting.

At the committee of the whole meeting the following evening, Feb. 25, council initially discussed holding an in camera meeting to discuss fire services before scrapping the idea.

The Windsor Fire Department executive released a statement Feb. 27 to explain their position. You can read it here.