BERLIN — Less than a week after the Town of Berlin unexpectedly severed all funding to the Berlin Fire Company (BFC), the public was surprisingly silent when given the chance to comment on the issue at Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting.
In a conflict that played out in the media last week, both the town and BFC released lengthy statements arguing their perspective behind what led to the funding cut. Despite the passion displayed by both sides, the fire doesn’t seem to have caught on among residents, at least publicly.
When the motion was made Monday to transfer the $557,360 Berlin provides the BFC in funding for fire and ambulance, an amount that represents about 28 percent of the fire company’s total yearly budget, into the town’s contingency fund it was nothing but crickets when the public was given a chance to comment.
During a later general comment period in the meeting, resident Joe Shelton weighed in on the issue but only went so far as to warn the Mayor and Council that a long drawn out legal battle with the BFC, which seems possible, is not in the best interests of anyone.
“It’s going to cost the town a lot of money,” predicted Shelton.
Shelton informed the council that he was witness to a similar situation in Frederick, Md. more than two decades ago and claimed that it ended up costing those involved upwards of $6 million.
“So I highly suggest that you get with the volunteer fire department here,” said Shelton.
Aside from that advice, no members of the public chose to weigh in on the budget cuts, a fact which Mayor Gee Williams said did not surprise him.
Williams claimed “overwhelming support” from the community in the form of individual meetings and communications with citizens. He also argued that severing funding with the BFC has had “no measurable impact” so far in terms of their ability to provide emergency services.
Councilwoman Lisa Hall, however, admitted that she had gone into the meeting expecting some residents to speak up either in protest of the cut or in favor of it. She guessed that the hesitancy to become involved stems from the mystery surrounding the original allegations of harassment.
“I was surprised that nobody really stood up,” said Hall, “but I guess everyone is waiting for the facts of the case to come out.”
Though the exact details of the case haven’t become public because they are considered a “personnel matter,” both the town and BFC attempted to defend themselves through statements last week.
According to Williams, failures on the part of the BFC to address harassment issues among employees forced the town to step-in and enforce its personnel code, which the BFC agreed to when it decided to lease paid EMS through Berlin.
“Over the past six months, the Mayor and Council have done all that we can within our legal and moral authority to protect the rights of the paid EMS personnel, who have been working as leased employees under the terms of an agreement enacted Jan. 1, 2009,” said Williams. “The Fire Company has been unsuccessful in its attempts to prevent some volunteer members from harassing Berlin’s paid EMS employees in the workplace that the Town firmly believes is both unacceptable and illegal.”
Though the town and BFC were able to maintain some form of cooperation from February until recently, the matter came to a head this month when the BFC decided to cut itself loose from town control, a move that prompted Berlin leadership to immediately cease all funding to the fire company.
Not long after, the BFC shot back and in a lengthy statement posted on its website and in paid advertisements accused town leadership of attempting to wrest control of the department away from its command, a move viewed as dangerous. The statement asserts that town administration had begun to take over staffing and scheduling for BFC personnel, a move the company viewed as unreasonable.
“That takeover of control was the cause of the fire company advising the town that the Fire Company’s primary mission of serving and protecting the public was being detrimentally affected by the town’s assertion of its authority,” the statement read. “The Fire Company notified the town that it would take over all supervision and direction of the EMS personnel to achieve that mission.”
Williams made it clear Monday the council might be willing to restore funding to the BFC if the department is willing to “take responsibility” for the issues the town claims it is having with harassment and lack of cooperation. For its part, the BFC maintains that a strong anti-harassment policy is in effect at the company and that the town did not include fire officials at all in the original investigation as well as asserting that town leadership overreached by taking over scheduling.
During the meeting, Town Administrator Tony Carson went on record supporting the council’s decision to sever funding despite the risk of public backlash in an election year for several council members.
“This Mayor and Council have never worried about that,” said Carson.
Whether the conflict will become a costly one as Shelton predicted is still unknown, though the first step down that path has already been taken, with EMS Supervisor Norris Phillip Donohoe, Jr., a 22-year BFC veteran, suing the town for wrongful termination. Donohoe was the supervisor initially dismissed when harassment allegations surfaced in February.