Berlin Seeking Fire Company’s ‘Actual Financial Status’

BERLIN — In what could be the first tentative step towards what many in town will hope will be a peaceful reconciliation, the Mayor and Council recently directed Town Attorney Dave Gaskill to begin a dialogue with the Berlin Fire Company’s (BFC) legal representation.

However, Gaskill’s job, according to Mayor Gee Williams, is only to request “specific financial documents” from the BFC so that the town can determine where the institution stands financially. Whether or not that will eventually result in Berlin restoring any or all of the approximately $600,000 in funding it yanked from the company over the summer is unknown at this point, according to officials.

The town severed all of the funding it was giving the BFC, causing a huge stir at the time and resulting in accusations of mismanagement by both sides.

The council has claimed that the company failed to properly address internal cases of harassment while the BFC has argued that the council has attempted to interfere with how the organization is run to the point where it might hinder the company in their mission to serve the public.

Additionally, Williams has accused the BFC of running an “ambush” write-in candidate in the hopes of unseating him in the last election in October 2012. That’s a charge the company has denied completely.

But even with a less than shiny recent history between the two groups, both have said that they would like to see a renewal of the century-plus relationship between Berlin and the BFC.

“We’re basically waiting to hear something from the town as to what they want to do to proceed forward,” said BFC President David Fitzgerald. “But yeah, we’ve been since last April willing and ready to meet with them, and we’re just waiting to hear something from the town.”

Though funding was pulled over the summer, the friction between the two parties extends back until at least last winter. Since then the BFC has made a number of attempts to find a way to restore town funding, publically asking the council in November to sit down with the BFC in front of an unbiased, third-party mediator of the town’s choosing. At that time, the council refused, citing complaints with company leadership methods and wanting to see where any legal cases for either side stood before moving forward. Williams said that January would be the earliest he would expect the issue to gain any momentum.

As of Tuesday, Fitzgerald said that the BFC has not heard from the town and is planning on approaching the council again with the idea of both parties sitting down with a mediator. However, Williams confirmed that Gaskill has been instructed to make the first move in the process and will likely do so sometime in the first half of this month. The dialog will only take place between attorneys for now, added Williams, to keep any personal feelings out of the mix.

“For the time being, all communications will initially be limited to the attorneys representing each party,” he said. “In the initial contact, the town seeks to determine the actual financial status of the fire company and our attorney will be requesting specific financial documents from the fire company as the first step in the process.”

According to Fitzgerald, the financial status of the fire company is definitely starting to feel the effects of the severed funding.

“We have had to change some of our ways of thinking and yes, we’ve cut back on our maintenance, we’ve cut back on our other training, we’ve cut back on anything that we can and we’ve tried to do that without regards to anything that the public would see,” Fitzgerald said.

But many of those cuts, especially on routine equipment maintenance, can stack exponentially, explained Fitzgerald, and continually avoiding repairs can drastically shorten the lifespan of any equipment. When vehicles begin to breakdown early, “that’s when you’ll see the cost catch up with us,” he said.

Fitzgerald warned, “The longer it’s going to continue the more it’s going to have a long-term effect.”

Personally, Williams asserted that he hopes that funding to the BFC can eventually be restored. But he has also made it clear that if and when money begins to flow back to the company, it will likely be less than before and contain more conditions.

“In my opinion, I would certainly want to re-establish funding at some point,” Williams said. “In my opinion, I don’t see that it will go back to the level it was.”

Williams put that idea into action this week when he proposed drawing $300,000 annually for 10 years from the town’s contingency fund to pay Berlin’s portion of establishing a stormwater utility. That $300,000 would usually be part of the funding given to the BFC. With the contingency fund at a little over $700,000 currently, according to Williams, there would still be money left over for the company if funding is re-ignited. There’s also the possibility of pulling money from elsewhere in the budget for the BFC if the council chose to do so.

But moving ahead with using the $300,000 for stormwater, which the council agreed to unanimously at Monday evening’s meeting, with the exception of absent Councilman Troy Purnell, makes it seem unlikely that all $600,000 in BFC funding will be returned.

During Monday’s stormwater meeting, Williams said that any return to funding of the BFC will probably be at a “substantially reduced level.”

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, he argued. Williams claimed that in the past the town “literally just wrote [the BFC] a check” every budget and that if money does return the council might monitor more closely how it is spent.

Whatever number the council may eventually decide on, Fitzgerald said that he just hopes it will be sufficient for the BFC to continue to properly serve the public.

“We would certainly hope that the funding will be restored to the level that we need to provide the public safety, as the residents have been used to for years in the community in Berlin,” Fitzgerald said.