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DEFUNDED: Town guts fire company funding

8/23/12 | By Nathan Brunet and Stewart Dobson

BERLIN — Months of quiet volleying between the Berlin Volunteer Fire Company and the Town of Berlin over allegations of harassment in the workplace turned into a major public row Tuesday, when town officials announced they were cutting all funding for the organization.

The official statement released by Mayor Gee Williams with the council’s backing said their decision to withdraw the town’s financial support — $560,000 this fiscal year — is because of the company’s refusal to abide by town government’s personnel policies that would otherwise cover the paid emergency medical services employees.

“Over the past six months, the Mayor and Council have done all that we can within our legal and moral authority to protect the rights of the paid EMS personnel who have been working as leased employees under the terms of an agreement enacted Jan. 1, 2009,” Williams wrote.

“The Fire Company has been unsuccessful in its attempts to prevent some volunteer members from harassing Berlin’s paid EMS employees in the workplace that the Town firmly believes is both unacceptable and illegal.”

The 2009 agreement allowed the fire company’s EMS employees to become “leased” employees of the town, thus making them eligible for government health and retirement benefits.

But with that agreement, Williams said, the town had to assume control and authority over those employees to satisfy state requirements.

Consequently, when an employee in February went to Town Administrator Tony Carson with a complaint about harassment, town officials investigated the allegations, found them to be credible and demanded that they cease.

In addition, a March 13 memorandum from the town to the fire company called for disciplinary action against certain paid personnel, and said the incidents the town had verified violated the federal Civil Rights Act.

Town officials also urged the fire company to hire a supervisor, who would report to Carson, to counsel its members on discriminatory acts and to attend a course on workplace discrimination.

Although the town has no control over volunteer workers, officials suggested that any discriminatory actions by volunteers also stop to avoid any possible lawsuits directed toward the company.

“We gave them a straightforward heads up that they need to take responsibility for their actions,” Williams said.

But the fire company did not accept the memorandum until May, when the town informed the company it would not be allowed to request money in the upcoming budget unless it did.

A series of exchanges followed between the company and town officials. Williams said the company made some changes to its command structure, but the town also continued to receive complaints about harassment.

But just last Thursday, the fire company had a notice delivered to Town Hall declaring that it was taking back full control of the paid employees.

“Effective immediately, the Berlin Fire Company will assume full control, direction and supervision over all emergency medical services (EMS) personnel,” the notice read. “The Company has been increasingly concerned about its ability to respond to emergencies. The Town of Berlin (Town) has attempted to enlarge its scope of direction and control over personnel matters In accordance with the Town’s personnel policies and manual, to operational matters relating to fire and emergency medical services. The Company’s attempts to work with the Town have been unsuccessful.”

The company goes on to argue that its decision to reassert its authority over all personnel matters is because of operational problems arising resulting from confusion over who is in charge of whom and what.

That declaration by the company, Williams said, left the council with no option but to break with the fire company and demand that the $150,000 already spent on payroll from June through August be repaid.

For the company’s part, its attorney Joseph Moore said the company does not acknowledge that the town’s assertions are accurate.

“The town has refused to provide us with either the alleged complaint, any reports of their investigation, or even a statement other than a general statement as to what the allegations were,” he said. He added that the loss of the town’s financial support, which constitutes roughly 29 percent of the company’s budget, does not mean the company is in trouble.

“We’re not broke,” he said. “We are going to continue to do everything in our power to maintain public safety for the town.”

Carson, however, countered that town officials did advise the fire company of all the circumstances “to make sure they were well aware of what was happening.”

With both sides apparently dug in, the face-off between these two municipal institutions will continue. At this point, town officials see little reason to meet with company representatives to resolve the dispute, sticking with their insistence that there will be no reconciliation until personnel involved in any harassment are dismissed.

In the meantime, the company will continue to operate, albeit with a severely diminished budget. 

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