In­ter-mu­nic­i­pal fire ser­vices merger a burn­ing topic

Sherbrooke Record - - LOCAL NEWS -

Five out of eight mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the eastern sec­tor of Lake Mem­phrem­a­gog have signed onto an in­ter-mu­nic­i­pal fire pro­tec­tion ser­vices agree­ment.

In the com­ing weeks, the three re­main­ing towns, Stanstead, North Hat­ley and Hat­ley Town­ship will de­cide whether or not to sign on to the agree­ment, which would bring the fire pre­ven­tion ser­vices of all eight mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties (Og­den, Hat­ley, Ayer’s Cliff, Sainte-cather­ine-de-hat­ley, Stanstead Town­ship, North Hat­ley, Stanstead, Hat­ley Town­ship) un­der a sin­gle régie, man­aged by a re­gional fire chief and a com­mit­tee com­prised of mem­bers from the eight towns.

Ac­cord­ing to mu­nic­i­pal rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the creation of the ‘Régie in­ter­mu­nic­i­pale de pre­ven­tion et de pro­tec­tion in­dendie Mem­phré­m­a­gog Est’ was ap­proved with unan­i­mous sup­port from four coun­cils on Tues­day night.

Stanstead Town­ship, how­ever, went to a vote af­ter sub­stan­tial op­po­si­tion from mem­bers of the public who at­tended the meeting.

With one coun­cil seat va­cant and one coun­cil­lor ab­sent, the vote was two in favour, two op­posed. Mayor Francine Caron-mark­well broke the tie vot­ing in favour of the creation of the régie.

Mem­bers of the public won­dered why coun­cil was mak­ing such an im­por­tant de­ci­sion with­out a public con­sul­ta­tion, and 60 days be­fore an elec­tion, ty­ing the hands of the next ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Coun­cil­lor Gaé­tane Gaudreau Lan­glois was asked why she voted against the merger.

“I feel that I don’t have enough in­for­ma­tion,” she said. “I think it’s like sign­ing a con­tract in white and the will fill in the rest later,” Lan­glois added.

Coun­cil­lor Pierre Martineau was asked by the public to ex­plain why he was in favour of the merger.

“The project isn’t per­fect,” Martineau said, “there are still un­knowns.”

Weigh­ing the pros and cons, Martineau said he felt it was the right de­ci­sion.

Martineau said he didn’t have any con­cerns about the fi­nan­cial as­pects of the agree­ment, and from an ad­min­is­tra­tive per­spec­tive there were pos­i­tive gains.

Martineau ad­mit­ted that re­gard­ing the op­er­a­tional side of the agree­ment, it was sug­gested fire de­part­ments would con­tinue to run as they had be­fore, but no other in­for­ma­tion was given.

“It will be the same as it was be­fore,” said Caron-mark­well, sug­gest­ing some mem­bers of the public may have been mis­in­formed about the in­ter-mu­nic­i­pal agree­ment.

The mayor said the grand­fa­ther clauses cur­rently in ef­fect in fire de­part­ments would be re­spected, as would cur­rent mu­tual aid agree­ments like the one with the U.S.

Caron-mark­well added that the ru­mour that once the régie was formed, fire­fight­ers would be asked to re­sign and then reap­ply was not true.

She added that the es­ti­mated costs of be­ing part of the régie rather than al­low the depart­ment to con­tinue op­er­at­ing as it was will be the same.

“I want to see that on pa­per,” one mem­ber of the public shouted out.

The first year’s costs, ac­cord­ing to Caron-mark­well, will be based on the ex­penses from 2016. Grad­u­ally, the pay scale will be based 50/50 on risk level and prop­erty value of the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

Fire­fight­ers in at­ten­dance at the meeting sug­gested they weren’t be­ing heard, and there was ref­er­ence to two fire­fight­ers who in­tended to quit rather than join the régie.

“No fire­fighter does it for the money. We’re proud of what we do. You will lose ser­vice be­cause morale has dropped quite low,” another fire­fight­ers said.

Mem­bers of the public asked Stanstead Town­ship Fire Chief Brian Wharry, who was at the meeting, what he thought of the in­ter-mu­nic­i­pal agree­ment.

“You’re putting him in a tight spot,” The mayor re­minded cit­i­zens, point­ing out that Wharry is a mu­nic­i­pal em­ployee.

“The DG and the mayor know how I feel,” Wharry said, re­fus­ing to say more.

Mem­bers of the public were com­bat­ive dur­ing the meeting, threat­en­ing the mayor that her de­ci­sion to join the régie would cost her the next elec­tion; one went so far as to ask how much she was be­ing paid off to push through the agree­ment.

Caron-mark­well, amid the yelling, told the public in at­ten­dance that she took of­fice with a de­sire to help her com­mu­nity, and that her de­ci­sions were based on what would be best for the ma­jor­ity. She added that threats and neg­a­tive com­ments held no in­flu­ence over her de­ci­sions.

The Record spoke to other fire­fight­ers from among the eight mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in­cluded in the agree­ment. They asked not to be named.

While agree­ing there were pos­i­tive as­pects, they felt that there were too many un­knowns to com­fort­ably move for­ward with the agree­ment.

Point­ing out that within the pro­posed régie there are four mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that cur­rently have a fire depart­ment and four that do not, the fire­fighter said the ob­vi­ous rea­son for a merger ap­peared to lower the costs of towns that have high ex­penses pay­ing for fire pre­ven­tion ser­vices from neigh­bour­ing towns.

While the towns with a depart­ment cur­rently have full con­trol, once a régie is put in place, that town will have a 12.5 per cent say in how funds and re­sources should be al­lo­cated.

Pay eq­uity was another is­sue that could po­ten­tially cause prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to the fire­fighter.

Salaries vary across de­part­ments based on train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els. There are cur­rently no unions. Fol­low­ing a merger, fire­fight­ers would not be will­ing to do a job for less than what another fire­fighter is be­ing paid in a neigh­bour­ing town, the source said.

While the fire­fighter said there could be ben­e­fits to the merger, en­ter­ing into it with­out care­ful con­tem­pla­tion is a risk from a fi­nan­cial and op­er­a­tional stand­point.

“Most peo­ple walk­ing around prob­a­bly don’t even know this is hap­pen­ing,” the source said.

Stanstead Town­ship Mayor Francine Caron-mark­well, amid the yelling, told the public in at­ten­dance that she took of­fice with a de­sire to help her com­mu­nity, and that her de­ci­sions were based on what would be best for the ma­jor­ity. She added that threats and neg­a­tive com­ments held no in­flu­ence over her de­ci­sions.

PHO­TOS BY MATTHEW MCCULLY

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