Sherman and Meade townships refuse to pay fire authority wages.

October 3, 2016

free soil fire department barn fireSherman and Meade townships refuse to pay fire authority wages.

#MasonCountyNews #FireDepartments

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

FOUNTAIN — The Sherman Township and Meade Township boards of trustees recently have chosen to no longer reimburse the Mason County Rural Fire Authority for firefighter wages, a practice that has been followed for the past 20 years by the 16 municipalities that make up the fire authority.

“We’ve been billed by the rural fire authority since its inception 20 years ago for reimbursement of wages,” said Sherman Township Supervisor Jerry Jensen. “We recently got a more detailed billing and our township clerk noticed we were being billed for runs outside of our township. We don’t pay for services that don’t directly affect our tax payers, our residents.”

Jensen said the township initially held a check for the rural fire authority until the fire authority board answered questions.

The Mason County Rural Fire Authority was founded in 1996 after the Mason County board of commissioners chose to no longer help fund the county’s fire departments. It consists of seven fire departments including Scottville, Custer Township, Branch Township, Fountain Area, Riverton Township, Grant Township, and Free Soil/Meade, which cover the City of Scottville, the villages of Fountain, Free Soil, and Custer, and the townships of Amber, Custer, Branch, Victory, Grant, Free Soil, Meade, Eden, Riverton, Sherman, Sheridan, and Summit.

The five authority members are appointed by the municipalities, four representing a particular geographical area and one serving at-large.

The tax payers within the fire authority currently pay 1 mill for services. In August of this year, the taxpayers approved the renewal of the 1 mill for 10 years, beginning in 2017, and also a .5 mill addition to cover the purchase of equipment. Due to a clerical error on the ballot which does not account for the year 2016 in the tax assessments, voters are being asked to approve a special one year term of 1 mill, which accounts for an accidental gap between the millage renewal. More on that story in the near future.

Jensen said Sherman Township sought legal advice from the Michigan Township Association, whose legal counsel asked what the contract between the fire authority and the municipalities states.

“The articles of incorporation state that the fire authority employs and compensates the firefighters, which meant that there had to be an outside agreement for the municipalities to reimburse the fire authority for wages. So, we went looking for that and couldn’t find anything.

“This basically goes back to the inception of the fire authority. The municipalities must have agreed upon themselves to reimburse for wages. We then wrote a letter to the rural fire authority board and asked it to produce the agreement. The board members couldn’t come with an agreement either.

“Based on that, there is no requirement for us to reimburse for wages and for that reason we will no longer reimburse for wages.”

Jensen said Sherman Township reimburses the rural fire authority about $6,500 a year for wages. “That’s money we can use to fix our roads, which we can only currently do every three years with our current budget.”

Lois Krepps, supervisor of Meade Township, said she has been arguing against the reimbursement since 2008. Meade Township is billed about $2,000 a year for firefighter wages. Krepps, whose husband, Ron, serves on the rural fire authority board, said Meade Township had made a proposal around that time asking for the fire authority to stop billing for wages. The fire authority board rejected the proposal, she said.

When the fire authority was first formed, the municipalities reimbursed the fire authority 100 percent for wages. Over time, that was changed to 50 percent.

Chuck Keller, chairman of the fire authority board, said the fire authority depends on the municipalities to assist with the wage reimbursement and would not be able to function within its current budget without it.

“The last thing we want is to have a division between any of these municipalities and the fire authority,” Keller said. “But, they don’t realize if the authority happens to fold, for any reason, they would have to flip the bill for fire protection within their area.”

Keller said he believes the fire authority does a really good job at running a financially lean service to the public.

“If all the municipalities say they are not going to pay any more wages, that would take $90,000 a year out of our budget.” Keller said what makes the issue difficult is Sherman Township’s decision to stop payment in the middle of the budget year. “This is creating some issues,” he said.

Scottville City Manager Amy Williams said she remembers when Lois Krepps brought the topic up a few years ago. At that time, Williams said she found correspondence that was written from the fire authority planning committee and the city explaining that the municipalities would reimburse for wages.

“For some reason, they neglected to put that language in the preamble of the fire authority,” Williams said. “But, I have the correspondence and I have spoken to people who sat on the planning stages of the fire authority. It was always the intent for the municipalities to assist.”

The City of Scottville budgets $12,000 a year for wage reimbursement. Scottville Fire Department — which covers the city, most of Amber Township, and parts of Riverton, Custer, Sherman, and Victory townships — is the busiest fire department in the fire authority and covers the highest amount of population and commercial and residential properties of any of the other rural fire authority departments.

“The Scottville City Commission has always took the stance that it will reimburse for firefighters’ wages,” Williams said. “But, I don’t think it’s fair that other municipalities have chosen not to pay their fair share. That’s just not right and this is something that will need to be discussed formally.” Williams said that the city commission will be discussing the issue at its next regular meeting.

Jensen from Sherman Township said the matter was brought up last week at a meeting of the Mason County township supervisors, who meet quarterly, even though that meeting also includes townships that are not in the fire authority, nor does it include representatives of Scottville or the three villages in the fire authority. The meetings are chaired by Amber Township Supervisor Jim Gallie.

Gallie said no other township supervisor, besides Jensen from Sherman and Krepps from Meade, seemed to indicate their respective townships were unhappy about the wage reimbursement procedure. He said that he too has been looking into paperwork, though to get to the bottom of the question of the formality of the procedure.

Keller, like Williams, said the fire authority would like to have formal discussions with the municipalities to settle the matter.

“These townships are saying they feel that they have paid the reimbursements long enough,” Keller said. “Our argument is that we depend on those reimbursements to operate the authority, to protect our citizens.”

Fountain Area Fire Chief Roger Berndt, along with representatives of the rural fire authority board, recently attended a Sherman Township board of trustees meeting and assured the township that the fire authority would continue to provide fire protection for the township even if it doesn’t get paid by the township.

Editor’s note: To voice your concern on the topic, contact your township trustees, village trustees or city commissioners.

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