A dispute over who should have control over the purse strings of the Ochre River Fire Department has led firefighters to hand in their two-weeks notice.
Firefighters in the rural municipality, which has approximately 945 residents and is located southeast of Dauphin, handed their notice in on May 2 and will take an indefinite leave of absence due to unresolvable issues with the council and administration.
Deputy Fire Chief Jason Gryba, who has worked in the fire department for 14 years, said it has been four years of fighting between the two parties.
“It’s not working for us and we’re frustrated,” Gryba said. “We’re exhausted by the conflict and we believe we’ve been more than fair trying to work things out but nothing has changed.”
At the epicentre of the conflict is how money is administered to the fire department.
Gryba said council’s system and policy is too onerous and that the department should be granted autonomy over their portion of the budget.
“If I buy something for the fire department, I have to finance it myself, hand in a receipt and then wait up to two weeks for it to be approved at a council meeting,” Gryba said. “I’m no longer in a position to fund the fire department out of my pocket and wait to be reimbursed.”
Last year, council, firefighters and representatives from Manitoba Local Government had a meeting to try to resolve the issues.
Under the Municipal Act, granting full autonomy to the department is impossible because the money comes from ratepayers in the RM. However, Gryba said he knows other municipalities who do it, but that it requires confidence in the leadership at the fire department.
“It requires a great deal of trust because there is the potential of loss of ratepayer money to dishonesty, but we have never had a problem in the past,” Gryba said. “All we want to do is carry on without the interference, stress and fighting that we’ve had over the last four years.”
Reeve Clinton Cleave said the matter isn’t about trust. Instead, it’s about being responsible to the ratepayers in the RM.
“We want to ensure transparency and accountability, and follow the Municipal Act as it’s laid out in front of us,” Cleave said.
He admits there are personality conflicts between some of the RM’s administration and the fire department staff.
At the end of the day, however, the administrator’s job is to ensure there is a paper trail for every dollar of ratepayer money spent in the municipality.
“That’s what she’s hired to do,” Cleave said. “Her job is to seek out revenue and expenses and know where everything is going to and from.”
The firefighters’ notice could mean the department will be shuttered as early as May 14.
Cleave said council has a scheduled meeting the day prior, but could call an emergency meeting to deal with the problem.
“It came at us fast and we were definitely blindsided,” Cleave said. “Regardless of what happens, there will be fire protection in place. The question is who it will be and how much it will cost.”
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Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 7, 2014