BERLIN – Miscommunication mangled a town council work session with the Berlin Fire Company this week.
On Monday, the Berlin Town Council was expected to have a 5 p.m. work session with the Berlin Fire Company (BFC). When fire company leadership requested at the last minute that a closed session meeting be scheduled instead, town officials voiced their frustration with the ongoing communication challenges between the two entities.
“I just don’t want anybody out there to ever feel or get the notion or be misled to believe we as a body do not want to work with Berlin Fire and EMS,” Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols said.
When fire company representatives showed up for Monday’s work session, they spoke with Mayor Zack Tyndall, the town administrator and the town attorney regarding concerns about having an open meeting to discuss a contractual issue. After a lengthy discussion, Tyndall returned to the council with the news that the fire company would meet with the council privately in a closed session on a date to be determined. He said that he’d advised representatives that the town would be updating its website to include information about the town’s specific funding allocations to both the fire company and the EMS side of operations. In recent weeks BFC officials have objected to the town’s references to a $400,000 grant provided to the organization, as in fact the fire company received a $116,960.82 grant while the EMS company received $283,039.18.
Council members were quick to express their frustration about the change in plans.
“I think this was an opportunity missed,” Councilman Jack Orris said, noting that the meeting had been set for 5 p.m. to accommodate the BFC.
Tyndall said the BFC representatives did not feel comfortable with the public venue.
Nichols said BFC officials had had weeks to let the town know they weren’t comfortable with a public meeting.
“One of the items we were hoping to cover this evening, the fire company felt that was a contractual thing,” Tyndall said.
Councilman Jay Knerr asked when the fire company was going to provide the financial information the town had requested.
David Gaskill, the town’s attorney, said the fire company alleged the town had breached its contract with the agency in not stipulating the breakdown of the grant in terms of fire and EMS. He said that once the town fixed its budget to show the specific allocations, the fire company would provide financials.
Councilman Dean Burrell echoed his peers’ frustration.
“From my perspective I think it was very disrespectful for you and those folks who we are supposed to be meeting with … to leave this meeting room and go have a meeting, a meeting that we were not a part of,” he said. “I just want it to be known that my time is very important to me. When I rearrange my day to accommodate a group we have met with over and over and over for the last it seems 10 years, I expect to have a meeting. And I am absolutely appalled that I had to sit here a half hour and then to hear this explanation. I don’t understand why we were treated so disrespectfully.”
Councilman Steve Green quoted the town’s contract with the fire company, which states that in public budget records and financial systems the town must show the separation of funds between fire and EMS. He said he didn’t believe changes to the website would satisfy the organization, as the town’s budget document itself referenced $400,000 rather than two distinct allocations as required by the contract.
Burrell said the allocations were determined by the fire company, not the town. Tyndall agreed and said officials had told him tonight they wouldn’t be able to provide the town with the breakdown by the time the council approved the budget.
Orris went back to the issue of the financial documentation the town has repeatedly requested.
“I’d like financials to help us make better decisions with taxpayer dollars,” he said, adding that there was some roadblock every time the town brought it up. “I’m willing to extend a hand if someone else unclenches their fist.”
Burrell said that in his decades on the council he’d found the fire company was one of the most difficult organizations to fund.
“Why are you putting up with this shit?” Gee Williams, the town’s former mayor who is now a reporter, interjected from the audience. “You’re the people providing public money for these services.”
Green said he didn’t see the situation being resolved if timing wouldn’t allow the fire company to provide the funding split before the town’s budget was drafted. Orris suggested the town send the fire company a letter outlining the budget process and associated timeline. Tyndall agreed.
Burrell said he felt the council was simply trying to keep a close eye on how taxpayer funds were spent.
“Personally, I feel it’s only fitting and proper that the taxpayers know where their money is being spent and how it’s being spent and when it’s being spent,” he said. “It is so disingenuous for us to be called on the carpet for breach of contract with this organization when they have failed to provide us the information we need to comply with the contract. These numbers are supposed to be entered into the Town of Berlin’s budget, but the numbers are provided to us by the fire company … How can we include numbers in our budget that were not provided by the fundee? It’s just at the point of it’s wearing me down because I have been dealing with the fire company longer than anybody on this dais. It is the same thing over and over and over.”
Green asked if there was a work group that could work to improve the situation.
“How can we be productive in this?” he said.
Tyndall said the county had a committee studying fire funding and that it would be helpful if BFC President David Fitzgerald, who is a member of the committee, shared updates on what was discussed at the county meetings.
“It makes sense for us to all be at the table together rather than having these siloed meetings that feed to a lack of clarity,” Tyndall said.
While fire company representatives left town hall after their initial conversation with Tyndall before the meeting, Joe Moore, the fire company’s attorney, returned when he realized the organization was being criticized for its departure. Moore said he’d been contacted by his clients, who’d seen part of the council’s ongoing discussion via the Facebook livestream.
“I thought we were excused, and you were going to make a brief statement,” Moore said to Tyndall. “I shook hands with your attorney and went home to eat dinner.”
Gaskill said Tyndall had made a statement but then council members had begun speaking.
“I’m hoping that you understand that we thought we were being excused,” Moore said, adding that he wanted the BFC to discuss contractual issues in a closed meeting.
Orris said the discussion was proof that communication between the parties needed to improve.
“I think this is a perfect example of how communication can be improved, and we should have had a meeting altogether,” he said. “We weren’t aware there was a contractual concern.”
Moore stressed that he wanted good communication between the parties but just didn’t want to discuss a legal matter in public. Tyndall expressed the town’s commitment to moving forward in a positive manner.
Moore said the bottom line was the fire company didn’t want the public thinking it received $400,000 for providing fire response when in fact it only received $116,960 for fire company operations.
Burrell said once again that the town couldn’t use the correct number in its budget if it didn’t have it.
“We discussed that with the mayor tonight for the first time…,” Moore said. “We’re going to try to resolve that. That’s a discussion I wanted to hold in private so that a perception of constant disagreement can go away.”
Fitzgerald, who returned to town hall a few minutes after Moore with several other fire company representatives, said the issues could be discussed further in a closed session meeting between the parties.