Inter-municipal fire services merger a burning topic
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.