A rather intense, heated discussion continued at Ponoka County council last week to stoke the burning situation surrounding the transfer of fire department equipment.
Their regular meeting on Tuesday, May 9 opened up with Ponoka County Regional Fire Chief Dennis Jones presenting a brief report to council about how things have gone with the new East District Fire Department since they began full operations on Tuesday, April 26. The department has had 11 calls – five of those outside fires and three motor vehicle collisions.
Talk then turned to the handover of the five piece of apparatus from the town and that’s when temperatures inside the council chamber began to elevate.
Chief administrative officer (CAO) Charlie Cutforth handled the explanation of the situation, stating it didn’t go quite as the county had intended.
“We had set up to pick up the trucks on the morning of April 26. However, our East District fire chief received a call the night before that the units – except one tanker – were parked outside the hall with the keys inside them, so obviously he went down there and got them parked inside,” Cutforth stated.
“Then saw that they were basically striped, which I saw for myself the next morning. Obviously, there is some feelings involved, but it was disappointing and the real concern to me – to some extent- was that it could’ve put both communities at somewhat of a risk to say the least.”
Cutforth added that during his negotiations with the town’s now former interim CAO, they never talked about the equipment on the units and that he thought it was assumed the trucks would come over as is with all the equipment.
“We did not talk about the equipment, but regardless we gave them credit for that,” he stated.
He did explain that in speaking to the newly hired town CAO, it was his understanding the fire brigade society had bought several pieces of equipment and done other things so they kept those items.
“Some may well have been and we don’t know for sure. That doesn’t matter as suddenly we had to re-equip the units,” Cutforth said, which amounted to an additional quoted expense of $89,000 for the five units.
“We used the list that firefighters have used for their truck checks for a number of years to determine what was supposed to be there. Some provision was made for equipment, but not to this magnitude. This needed to be done immediately so I gave them the direction to do so.”
That dollar figure on replacement has attracted the most attention from council.
“I respect the apology from Town of Ponoka Mayor regarding the situation, but I have to call it as it is – that’s just blatant theft,” said Reeve Paul McLauchlin.
“Though, I’m thinking we should just move and eat the $89,000, chalking it up to not a good break up.”
That sentiment wasn’t unanimous, however, as both councillors Mark Matekja and Doug Weir wanted to see something done to recoup that cost and ensure that the town knows what took place as well as how the county feels about it.
Matekja believes it may have been different if it was all in writing, but also knew lots of county residents that donated to buy that equipment and also wondered why the county never got any revenue from the highway calls over the years.
“So, it’s to say hundreds of thousands of dollars the town got (for those highway calls) and we have no idea where (the revenue) went,” he said.
“What also concerns me is the town used Engine 2 for all their calls, not just the ones in the county.”
Meanwhile, Weir simply vented his frustration stating, “I say we move on and bill them the $89,000. We gotta hit the town with this. “
Cutforth’s suggestion was for the county to rescind the free offer of their old county peace officer vehicle to the town and put it out on the market for $10,000 along with not putting any money toward the town’s planning for the renovation of the recreation complex – which works out to about $40,000.
Additionally, the county has already said it won’t be paying the two invoices it received from the town for the adjustments on its share of the 2015 and first four months of 2016 operating and maintenance costs. That amount comes to around $30,000.
“I was told by the town CAO after receipt of both invoices to just consider them unpayable and we’ve done that and have not received one since,” Cutforth informed council.
Given that, Cutforth commented he’s been impressed with the new town CAO, especially taking the hit for this issue despite having been put in an impossible situation with the mixed messages he is getting from his council.
“(The town CAO) and the fire chief had no knowledge of what Engine 2 came with when new and I’m not sure anyone really knows now,” he said.
“This issue is purely a political one. From what I can see, administration isn’t fully supported by town council and they need to deal with their issues then sort out how to deal with the county. The whole situation vindicates what our council needed to do a year ago.”
At this point, McLauchlin suggested a response from council be a letter explaining the situation to Ponoka town council, outlining the county’s displeasure with how things were handled along with a bill for the replacement costs.
“I don’t want to punish their citizens. I just don’t want to do business with them until they are seen acting more professional,” he added.