Tehkummah reeve sets record straight on fire hall concern

TEHKUMMAH—It was the occasion of the arrival of an insurance bill in his mailbox that set Larry Killens on a quest to discover how rural fire protection works and how it intersects with the state of his bank balance. Along the way, he discovered that things in the country often operate differently than they do in more urban areas.

“I was listed as living in an ‘unprotected’ area,” said Mr. Killens. Since the Township of Tehkummah has a fire department, albeit a volunteer one, he decided to look into all things fire department to determine how it all works.

“I discovered that Gary Brown was not only the reeve, he was the project manager for the construction of the new fire hall and the fire chief.” (The municipality is currently searching for a new fire chief and so Mr. Brown, a veteran firefighter, has temporarily assumed this required role in an acting capacity.)

Mr. Killens went on to learn that the project was not sent to competitive bids, but tendered out to local contractors to maximize benefit to local businesses.

“I have concerns that the project is apparently more than $100,000 over-budget and that they can’t tell me how much the project is over budget,” continued Mr. Killens, who attended a Tehkummah council meeting to seek answers to his concerns.

Tehkummah Reeve Gary Brown presented a detailed letter to Mr. Killens and other meeting attendees outlining the current status of the fire hall project which explained many of Mr. Killen’s concerns. Reeve Brown also discussed the fire hall project and the current situation vis-à-vis volunteers and training with the department.

“It’s been a good project,” said Reeve Brown, whose township has been working on a project to replace the old fire hall for three years and who is indeed the project manager and acting fire chief. “We are so close (to completion) it isn’t funny,” he added.

Mr. Killens had expressed concern that the township was not following provincial guidelines for government agencies in tendering projects, guidelines with which, as a school board trustee, Mr. Killens is very familiar. Municipalities, however, are guided by a separate act than that which outlines the guidelines Mr. Killens is familiar with—unless the municipality was to receive $10 million in provincial funding.

“Don’t I wish we could,” Reeve Brown said of the $10 million funding bar. On the positive side from the council’s point of view, however, local municipalities receiving less than $10 million in provincial funding do have the flexibility to award contracts to local businesses instead of sending out for public tender. For his part, neither Reeve Brown nor his business interests have received monies for any work or loan of equipment used in the construction of the fire hall. “We are a very small municipality,” noted Reeve Brown. “We try to keep the costs down as much as possible.”

Mr. Killens noted that there were ‘volunteers’ working on the project who were receiving payment, although the remuneration was nominal. “Where I come from, if you are getting paid you are not a volunteer,” he said.

Reeve Brown countered that in order to cover the people working on the project against workplace injuries, they had to be legitimately listed as being employed. “But most of the folks doing the work have, like myself, not submitted any hours.”

As to the cost overruns and lack of a solid number for the project bottom line, Reeve Brown noted there remains some work to be completed, particularly the fire doors, and that not all of the final bills have come in.

The project was originally budgeted for $330,000 noted Reeve Brown, $110,000 of which is to be covered by the municipality as its share. The rest, explained Reeve Brown is covered by other levels of government through approved funding applications.

After the project was approved for infrastructure funding, the council decided to revisit the fire hall project with an eye to creating a multiuse facility.

“We looked at a lot of ideas, including one to add a (swimming) pool,” said Reeve Brown. The swimming pool would have been both a community resource and also acted as a reserve water supply for the fire team. “In the end, we couldn’t make that work,” he said.

What did work, as it turned out, was creating an emergency shelter for the community and building a gym with donations from community members. “We’ve got quite a bit of equipment now,” said Reeve Brown, who hopes that community members will step forward to set up a community-run facility similar to that found in other Island communities. “That would be ideal,” he said.

Although in the end the project will cost more than the nominally budgeted $330,000, Reeve Brown stands by his assessment of the new building as a good project. “You really have to look at the whole thing to understand it,” said Reeve Brown. “We have the $45,000 that comes back from the HST that is going into our general revenues, and then there is also the fill from the project we used as cover at the landfill site, and then there is the re-purposing of the old fire hall as a public works building.”

Reeve Brown, who describes himself as a somewhat reluctant acting fire chief, taking into account his many other duties, said that he would be more than happy to have someone else step up into the role. “Nobody else wants the job (so far),” he said.

“We are a small group,” Reeve Brown said and he noted that the demographic reality of small rural volunteer fire departments means that they are often under-strength. “We could always use a lot more volunteers,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is we have something like 65 percent of our folks over age 65.”

Mr. Killens expressed dismay that the fire team is rated only for external firefighting, not being allowed to go into a burning building. He expressed concern that the cost overruns on the fire hall might be behind the lack of training to qualify the municipality’s fire team for internal firefighting.

“Absolutely not,” responded Reeve Brown. The fire department has had less than perfect attendance from its volunteers for the training that has been offered, and he said that he would prefer that much more training take place. Busy personal and work schedules often trump training schedules for volunteers. “You can’t go out and drag them into the classroom,” lamented Reeve Brown.

Despite the training shortfall, Reeve Brown said that he is proud of his fire team. The demographic makeup of the community, with most residents well north of 50, provides a less than ideal recruiting pool and his oldest member is 65.

Mr. Killens said that he had concerns that a private company was a partner in the building—a concern that apparently came about due to a misunderstanding in word choice.

“Of course you can’t ‘partner’ with a contractor,” said Reeve Brown. “There is no ‘partner,’ the company was contracted to produce the trusses for the building.”

Mr. Killens said that he was concerned that equipment has been moved into the new fire hall even though the building has not been approved for occupancy yet and that the fire doors are not working properly.

The building is now designed to act as an emergency shelter, providing a secure location for residents in the event of a major and long-term power outage. “If that happens, and we know that it is likely to some day in the future, people will have a warm place to come to,” said Reeve Brown.

Reeve Brown admitted that he had gone ahead and ordered the fire team equipment and vehicles placed in the new hall. “We need to have the equipment all together in one building,” he said. “I will take responsibility for that. If we have to move the equipment back into the old building, we will deal with that.”

Mr. Killens was adamant that he was not saying that any of the council or the reeve’s actions were inappropriate or that he suspects things are in any way untoward. “I am not saying that,” he said “I will let better people than me draw their own conclusions.”

Mr. Killens said despite the assurances received he was still displeased with the cost overrun on the fire building and that he intends to go to the ministry to ask for an audit of the project.

Reeve Brown said that it was unfortunate that some community members were concerned. “Perhaps we could have done things a bit differently, especially in communicating what we were doing,” he said. “I think most people in the community do know what is going on.”

Although the project will cost more than the original plans for the fire hall, Reeve Brown said that he was confident that the resulting multiuse facility would prove to be a great addition to the community and will be completed at a fraction of the cost of such a facility built through a more formal process.

mike@manitoulin.ca