This photo shows an empty Engine 2 rescue vehicle after the PFD dropped off vehicles to the Ponoka County East District Fire Department a day early with minimal equipment. Photos from a Town of Ponoka fire investigation report

Ponoka County plays hardball over fire equipment invoice

Divisions over fire services between the town and county of Ponoka have come to the forefront

Divisions over fire services between the town and county of Ponoka have come to the forefront.

In this case the decision by the Town of Ponoka July 11 to pay half of a $76,000 invoice from Ponoka County.

That invoice came about after the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD) transferred vehicles to the county with little to no equipment last April.

Ironically, town council made the decision in county council chambers as the town borrows the space.

After hearing of the decision, county council held a special meeting July 13 for almost 25 minutes deciding how to respond and the results were firm: The county has pulled its provision of equipment and services, including the county council chambers.

“The town fire department actions in delivering less than fully equipped units put county residents at risk should an event have occurred the night of the transfer,” states the release.

It adds concern over the actions of town council and its decision to pay half of the invoice.

“However, this immature and reckless action was totally unacceptable from people who hold positions of public trust.”

Recreation, library and other areas will continue to be honoured. This decision will be reviewed in the next election.

Reeve Paul McLauchlin said the decision has drawn support from both town and county residents. He feels the situation will only get better with a new council.

“The remedy is going to be born by a council that wants to work,” said McLauchlin.

Background

In January 2016 then acting town CAO Doug Wright and Cutforth made an agreement on the transfer of equipment.

The agreement included costs of what it would take for the two municipalities to have standalone departments and how to divvy up the equipment.

The transfer was to take place April 26, 2016. Officers of the PFD, under direction of the town fire chief, transferred the equipment a day early, after hours, with little notice.

That fateful decision led the town to commission an independent investigation by All Fire Investigations.

It recommended the town pay $38,000 for the difference, which is what Town of Ponoka council approved at its July 11 meeting.

For Ponoka County, the decision went against what was originally agreed upon despite the town claiming that some equipment was old and unsafe.

In its July 11 meeting, Ponoka County discussed the issue for about 45 minutes.

“The one thing was, and it needs to be acknowledged, there was a period of time that we were at risk. We were undersupplied…in all of our units,” said McLauchlin in the meeting.

County reaction

Ponoka County spent $76,000 equipping the trucks and in May 2016 sent an invoice to the town for the cost.

The information Flootman gave town council — more than a year after receiving the invoice — had detailed descriptions of all the items in the trucks.

Flootman did not speak to Wright or Cutforth about the transfer but said there were some assumptions made on the transfer of equipment on the trucks.

“Town administration must point out that the apparatus appraisals did not include this equipment, nor does this request acknowledge that the town equally requires this equipment to maintain a functioning fire service,” states the information.

While administration did not provide any recommendations on the item, Flootman offered that the $38,000 suggested from the investigation was fair.

However, Ponoka County was clear from the start that it would not negotiate on the invoice.

No communication with CAOs

Coun. Teri Underhill asked Flootman if he had any conversations with Wright or Cutforth about their discussions considering the said assumptions. Flootman replied that he didn’t.

“How can you make assumptions?” asked Underhill.

Flootman did not answer the question but suggested all the information he needed was in the inventory and the transfer.

Coun. Carla Prediger suggested the town go with the recommendation and Coun. Marc Yaworski suggested the new information added clarity as to why the PFD acted the way it did.

He showed some concern for town residents.

“Were we, in town, still safe?” asked Yaworski.

PFD Fire Chief Jamie Wilkinson’s reply was measured.

“We had enough equipment for the Town of Ponoka,” adding that had the PFD sent equipment over to the county, those items wouldn’t have been serviceable.

Mayor Rick Bonnett wondered why the equipment — which is believed to be on the trucks the morning before the transfer — was being used then. “Why were we using it for the prior six or seven months?”

Wilkinson replied that the process of removing equipment had already begun to ensure safety of residents, adding that new equipment was purchased and stored in anticipation of the transfer.

Despite that knowledge, no communication was made with county prior to the transfer, on the PFD’s action.

Indeed, All Fire Investigations makes the conclusion that the early transfer, with little notice, was actually made to ensure the Ponoka Fire Brigade Society could keep the equipment.

Bonnett added his confusion as to why even the smallest pieces of equipment such as hooks were removed from the trucks. “It’s pretty hard for us to go back on that and say we’re going to split hairs.”

Question of ownership

Wilkinson said he and Flootman have a strong disagreement on ownership.

“We have the financials of the brigade society that have ownership of the equipment,” said Wilkinson. “I was put into a very difficult position on this to make this decision.”

He based his determination on the brigade society’s receipts. The Brigade Society received financial donations from both town and county residents over the years.

All Fire has offered there is no case where a society attempted to claim the goods it raised money for.

“I was unable to find any case where a Firefighter Society continued to claim ownership of their donated gifts to their fire service or to a sponsored charity (e.g., Seniors’ Home, Muscular Dystrophy, Municipality, etc.).”

Gulka suggested the town should pay the amount based on the recommendation of All Fire Investigations.

For Underhill’s part, she feels the money should have been paid. “We still have to work with them on a day to day basis,” said Underhill, adding that the province looks favourably on municipalities that collaborate.

Contentious discussion

This issue is clearly contentious among town councillors; during the discussion, Coun. Marc Yaworski made a gibe at Underhill but it could not be heard in the gallery.

Bonnett halted any argument between the two.

Council accepted the presentation as information, which passed 4-3 with Councillors Sandra Lyon, Tim Falkiner, Yaworski and Gulka voting in favour.

Underhill then made a motion to pay the county the $38,114.94 as recommended by All Fire, which passed 5-2. Bonnett and Falkiner voted against it.

Bonnett added that he felt the county should be paid the full amount considering the delay.

Councillors voiced their displeasure at the mayor.

“This is something that’s got our community down and got us into a split,” responded Bonnett, adding that the town should have paid the county some time ago.

He added that town council had a verbal contract to enter into some kind of regional service and reneged on the deal.

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