Washington Evening Journal
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Washington, IA 52353
Brighton fire dispute hits impasses
Series of 3-2 votes leaves many frustrated, despite progress toward advisory board
BRIGHTON — Tempers began to flare once more at a special meeting in Brighton Tuesday night, where city officials met with representatives from townships and the fire department to talk out points of fire protection in the area.
While participants said conversations were civil at public and private meetings in the last several weeks of ongoing disputes, an inability reach consensus on terms for a memorandum of understanding or intergovernmental arrangement — known as a 28E agreement — Tuesday night led some to storm out of the council chambers, one of them with a crude remark, after over two hours of back-and-forth.
Advisory board on the horizon
The debates Tuesday night did bring one issue of the fire protection dispute closer to resolution. After a narrow 3-2 result, council members voted to establish a fire advisory board by resolution at their next regular meeting, on Tuesday, Feb. 22.
Under the wording of that planned resolution, the board would have an appointee from the department, every protected township, and the cities of Pleasant Plain and Brighton. It would have no budgetary authority, but would make recommendations to the city council for fire department policy, based on input from the parties involved in at least four public meetings per fiscal year.
Council Members Rose Jaynes and Mary Smith voted against the measure. Smith said she saw no need for townships to have a hand in the city’s decisions.
“It ought to be just the firemen and the city council,” she said. “(Townships) are paying for a service … just like we contract law enforcement.”
Others pushed back on that metaphor.
“Like running a business, you’ve got employees, i.e., the firemen, and you’ve got customers, i.e., the trustees,” Fire Department Representative Mark Cobb said. “Right now, the employees aren’t happy and the customers aren’t happy. And when that happens, a business owner has to go, ‘I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to make some changes, or I don’t have a business.’”
Proponents of the measure included every township trustee at the meeting, as well as Cobb on the fire department’s behalf. They said an advisory board would ensure healthy communication, and give input to the townships, which collectively provide around 85% of the department’s fire protection money.
“If you’re paying for a service, I feel you have a right to ask for what you would like to be provided,” Clay Township Trustee Steve Roberts said. “It’s real simple; it’s just checks and balances.”
Lengthy debate over $2,000
One sticking point involves a clause of the a proposed memorandum that would, among other things, commit city money every year to maintenance of the fire station. While city officials previously understood that amount to be “up to $2,000” per year as needed, Firefighter Mark Cobb said the ask was for a routine allocation of $2,000 per year, whether it got used or not.
Cobb said the money would make up for revenue that he claimed dropped after the city stopped allocating funds from its municipal gas company at the advice of the State Auditor’s Office in 2020. By his estimate, the change decreased effective fire funding by about $4,500 a year, although city officials disputed that number, and said general fund payments for department-related expenses were more or less unchanged.
“The firemen still believe that ($2,000) is making a concession, because there still isn’t as much revenue coming in as was coming in before,” Cobb said. “The point I want to make is, the cost of running the fire department isn’t getting less … we feel like we’re making a concession from what was being paid for before, and this $2,000 is kind of a meet-you-in-the-middle position.”
While officials said some revenue sources could cover the cost, such as local-option sales tax, the city’s tentative budget for next fiscal year has its general fund in the black by just $14. Townships can’t fill the gap because each one in the agreement is already taxing its residents the maximum amount for fire protection allowed by state law.
City Council Member Cathy Rich said the city didn’t have money to commit an additional and unconditional $2,000 per year, given its decision to pay for worker’s comp and liability insurance, where prices are on an upward trend of their own.
“Money is going to keep getting tighter and tighter,” she said. “The issue we’re having this year, which has been painful for all of us, isn’t really going to go away … insisting on $2,000 every year is refusing to admit the town is losing people, losing population, losing valuation.”
Rich said she was unwilling to raise taxes to find the money, saying the strain on taxpayers would be too great.
"I want to support the fire department, but we’re talking people that can’t even pay their utilities,“ she said. ”Every increase effects them … we represent the taxpayers, I take that job very seriously.“
Many township trustees at the meeting expressed frustration with the holdup.
“It’s $2,000 to make these volunteers happy,” Brighton Township Trustee Gordon Shelangoski said. “They’re volunteers, they spend thousands of hours for free, every year … and you guys are going to fight over that, I don’t get it.”
In another 3-2 motion with Jaynes and Smith voting no, council members agreed to approve the memorandum of understanding with language saying municipal funds would pay “up to” $2,000 a year to the fire department for station maintenance.
“I’m going to let $2,000 hold it up,” Jaynes said before the vote. “Because we’re going to do the $2,000, and then the advisory board and the memorandum and all this stuff, and every step along the way, if you vote ‘no’ about something, we’re going to have the same blow-up all over again. We’re going to have threats to quit, and threats to do this.”
Cobb said he needed to consult with department members before commenting on whether they’d agree to that.
Frustration over terms of intergovernmental agreement
In another break from the requests of townships and firefighters, the city voted 3-2 to make no changes to its 28E agreement with the townships. Council Members Paul Shelangoski and Dave McArtor voted against the measure.
The new document would have added language about the department’s budget process, spelled out what accounts pay for what expenses, and clarified a handful of legal ambiguities in the old agreement.
The negative vote came after trustees told the city they wanted the new 28E, but called for a document shared between every government involved as the current document is, rather than drafting a separate agreement between the city and every entity involved.
City officials said separate 28E agreements would prevent future headaches if new disagreements arise in the future.
“If somebody wants to leave, we’d have to come all back together again and redo it,” Mayor Melvin Rich said. “It’d be a lot easier for the city to deal with one township at a time.”
Townships said the opposite was true for their respective county attorneys, who represent the smaller local governments in legal matters.
“That way, if there’s a problem down the road, they don’t have several different cases they’re working with, it’s just one case,” Gordon Shelangoski said.
Despite the vote to keep their current 28E agreement, some on the council said they’d be willing to enact additions from the proposed 28E by a resolution. Trustees and firefighters were skeptical of that approach, saying a resolution alone would be easy to reverse.
“If you guys decided tonight to do this tonight, two weeks later it could be voted on to change,” Gordon Shelangoski said.