Several councillors opposed to shared fire department management team

Minto council voted 5-2 in favour of the move while Wellington North vote was 3-2

WELLINGTON COUNTY – The decision by municipal councils in Minto and Wellington North to share a fire department management team, while approved at separate May 19 video-conference meetings, sparked considerable discussion in both municipalities and was not unanimous in either.

The agreement, which includes the appointment of Chris Harrow, Minto’s current fire chief, as director of fire services for both municipalities, was approved by a 5-2 count in a recorded vote during the Minto session.

Voting in favour were Mayor George Bridge, deputy mayor Dave Turton and councillors Judy Dirksen, Ron Elliott and Geoff Gunson. Councillors Mark MacKenzie and Jean Anderson were opposed.

In Wellington North a resolution to authorize the agreement passed by a 3-2 margin, with Mayor Andy Lennox and councillors Steve McCabe and Lisa Hern in favour and councillors Sherry Burke and Dan Yake opposed.

The two municipalities, plus the Township of Mapleton, have been discussing some form of shared fire services since late in 2019.

The decision by Minto and Wellington North to move forward with the shared administrative position was prompted by the pending retirement of current Wellington North Fire Chief Dave Guilbault on May 31.

For the duration of the agreement, which will take effect on June 1 and run for the remainder of 2020, Minto and Wellington North will cost share the director of fire services’ expenses on a 50/50 split.

The sharing of costs of the management team splitting of wages, vehicle maintenance and management conference expenses are all costs that could be shared. The departments will also share expertise on training, apparatus and fire prevention. \

A staff report from Wellington North CAO Mike Givens estimates that municipality will save around $4,000 on the fire director’s salary over the course of the agreement.

A staff report from Harrow presented at the Minto meeting indicates a review of the first six months of operations will be brought to both councils.

The trial period will also allow for discussions with Mapleton to progress and for Mapleton to evaluate its role in the partnership.

Minto discussion

“I have some reservations about this,” said Minto councillor Mark MacKenzie at the Minto meeting.

“This council, as far as I know, has never received a formal request from Wellington North to deal with this matter.”

MacKenzie added, “I think it’s a high level matter. That protocol should have been in place and I have never seen one. We only talked about it last meeting and I think it’s a rush.”

MacKenzie also questioned the financial advantages of the deal for Minto.

“To provide a management service on the fire service that we have, for them, for 14,000 people, for fifty grand – no wonder – who wouldn’t take that?”

CAO Derrick Thomson advised MacKenzie, staff “did send council notification” in late January, “that we were engaging in these types of conversations and would be bringing something back to council.”

While agreeing the timing is “not ideal,” Thompson said Guilbault’s pending retirement impacted the timeline “to a certain degree.”

The CAO also noted the short-term nature of the initial agreement would allow the parties to discontinue it, “if there’s some issues that we can’t overcome.”

“I just don’t’ want to see our expert department head, and our service that we provide, drop because of this,” MacKenzie suggested.

“I think we may be creating something here that will snowball to other municipalities that may delete some department heads later on.”

Minto councillor Ron Elliott saids, “If I have a concern, I’m worried about Chris, in a way.

“He’s a pretty busy man doing one department and it was a struggle for him to do the CAO and the fire department (Harrow was interim CAO of Minto, as well as fire chief, from December 2018 to January 2020).

“Now he may have three. Are we over-stretching him? Will we have to hire more people to help him with this?”

Thomson replied, “The chief is a very strong and capable fire chief and he’s also looked at the risks with this type of agreement and he’s expressed to me that he’s very confident, with not only our own team but the team in Wellington North at the management level, about being able to pull this together.

“I think Chris is always looking to the future and seeing what the future holds … we believe there are some very exciting opportunities by doing this; both with apparatus and maintenance and a more streamlined approach to vehicle procurement, training, making sure everybody’s trained the same way. There’s a lot of upside to this program that will benefit Minto and will benefit Wellington North and potentially benefit Mapleton as well.”

Elliott said, “Sharing services is great,” but he wondered, “Are we moving toward becoming an amalgamated community or are we moving away from that by sharing services?”

“I can assure you that we are not amalgamating anything. It’s Minto strong all the time,” countered Thomson. “I think it’s just looking at being smarter, to look at synergies that make some sense.”

Councillor Judy Dirksen noted the fire agreement refers to a “northern Wellington” partnership, while a previous arrangement on economic development between Minto, Mapleton and Wellington North referred to the grouping as “north Wellington.”

“I think generally the three municipalities are referred to as north Wellington,” Dirksen stated.

“I don’t want it to be northern Wellington sometimes and north Wellington other times. Let’s decide what we’re going to call the three of us and let’s make sure that we stick with it all the time, because it just makes it really confusing.”

“Absolutely. We do need to be able to brand this appropriately,” agreed Thomson.

“My understanding from the last meeting was that we would get hard facts and figures before we agreed to this and now here we are, the next meeting, and now it’s a go and here we are agreeing to it,” said councillor Jean Anderson.

“I get that there’s a timeline to it, that it’s only to the end of the year, but there’s no hard figures in there (on) sharing the cost of Chris and I don’t imagine he’ll be able to manage both departments without have some extra help, so I expect there are some costs there that are not outlined.

“I just have a few reservations about extending him too far. Just like the economic development thing with (economic development manager Belinda Wick-Graham) they’re getting our expertise and our good leadership and I have some concerns about the stresses and strains on the fire department.”

“I’m sorry about any confusion from last meeting,” said Thomson. “I thought we left it with we were going to do this interim spot until the end of the year and that would give us time to bring back those very detailed figures about what the synergies were going to be, and I still hold that to be true.

“But given their chief is retiring, it’s an opportunity for us to get in there and do this type of work.”

Deputy mayor Dave Turton reminded council members the idea had its origins in a recent consultant’s report, funded with provincial dollars and commissioned by county municipalities to find operational efficiencies.

“I think back when Mr. Ford threw that money out to get some efficiencies in our municipalities, this is likely one of the ones that really stuck out,” Turton said.

“You can say that through Mutual Aid why were we not working on some of these efficiencies a little while back? I think likely if we don’t choose to work on some of these as municipalities we’re going to be told. And I can see that with Mapleton. If they don’t get on board they are likely going to be told to get on board. Back when we had amalgamation, did we have many choices?”

Turton added, “I think we need to put a little faith in our people and move ahead with it,” he added.

Councillor Geoff Gunson, a member of the Minto fire department, said he sees advantages to starting with an agreement with only one municipality.

“It does give Chris a chance to see, with just one extra department, how much work it actually it is … I like that it’s only one extra and it gives him a real handle on if he can maybe handle two extra ones,” Gunson observed.

“We don’t have the hard numbers yet. This is an opportunity to get six months of trial to see where the hard numbers come from,” noted Mayor George Bridge.

“This isn’t going to take anything away from Wellington North, and from Mapleton down the road.”

Bridge added, “They still have their chiefs, they still have their people in charge, their captains and everything else. This gives an overall basic management team approach that we’ve done really well in Minto. I know it sometimes it looks like we’re giving more than we’re getting, but I think in this case, at the end of the day, the numbers will trade off.

“I think you’re right deputy mayor Turton. If we don’t start doing some of this stuff, the province is going to come down on us. They’re sort of not looking at us right now because they have other fish to fry.”

Wellington North discussion

During the Wellington North meeting, Burke asked why Mapleton wasn’t part of the initial agreement.

“When we last spoke about this partnership it was a three-way partnership … I’m wondering when we might expect that third party to come on board ?”

CAO Mike Givens explained Mapleton “hasn’t made the same push to move ahead with the agreement.

“We felt it was timely. We were comfortable. We’ve had good communication with Minto throughout,” said Givens.

“So we’re not exactly sure what Mapleton’s plans are. They’ve certainly shown interest throughout.”

Givens said the current arrangement “works out better for us in the short term in terms of seeing whether or not the model that we proposed actually works during the term that we’re presenting.”

“I’d just like to reconfirm my position on this,” said Burke. “Mr. Harrow, I’m sure that you’re a great fire chief and I mean no disrespect when I say that my position hasn’t changed on this for a variety of reasons …

“I don’t support the Northern Wellington Fire Service and our residents and our fire service deserve leadership of their own, from their own fire chief for Wellington North and not northern Wellington.”

Yake asked, “Is six months enough time to give a thorough assessment?”

Givens replied, “I think we felt that because it’s a new model for us we wanted to kept the term short, so we were constantly in communication and reviewing how the actual agreement is working.”

He added the plan calls for monthly reports to each of the councils.

“I think we’re fortunate to be able to work with Minto and Chief Harrow,” stated Mayor Andy Lennox.

“He brings a wealth of expertise working in the rural small-town section,  and I look forward to working with him to make our fire service even better than it is today.”

Wellington North council had previously discussed the proposal during an in-camera session on May 4.

Following the closed portion of that meeting, both Burke and Yake voted against a resolution that council “receive the CAO Report on Northern Wellington Fire Services for information. And further that the confidential direction to the Chief Administrative Officer be approved.”