Family loyalty runs deep within Colchester Center Volunteer Fire Company (CCVFC). It’s built into the fire department’s motto, “Our family helping yours”; painted on their trucks; hung on a banner in the station.
At a meeting on Jan. 29, CCVFC, or Fire District #3, leadership explained how fire services would be transferred under town management, addressed discrepancies in their 2017 audit, and emphasized the integrity of the department’s history and volunteer spirit.
While tensions ran high over the course of the meeting, with citizens decrying the department’s disorganized bookkeeping and firefighters defending their service, the meeting ended with a return to the company motto and a call for understanding.
“I don’t care what color the fire trucks are going to be painted. It doesn’t matter,” said Chief Ladd. “We have agreed to merge, we are for this merger, we want to make sure that these volunteers who have served for 68 years are able to continue to serve their community.”
Next to Ladd also sat former CCVFC Chief Mike Chmielewski, Prudential Committee Chair Jay Reidinger and Dan Richardson, the fire district’s attorney.
Ladd began the meeting with a brief history of fire services in Colchester, outlining how CCVFC began as a private non-profit corporation in 1951 until 2014, when they dissolved their assets and joined with Fire District #3. They hoped the transition would “enhance our ability to protect the community and provide the best water system possible,” Ladd said.
But the transition from a nonprofit into a municipal business, “was something different for us,” he said. “We made lots of transitions; we’re still making transitions today.”
This led to discussion of the district’s 2017 audit. Alex Hill, lieutenant and former treasurer of the department, addressed both “Material Weaknesses” identified in the audit: the incorrect cash balances, and the violations of IRS payroll regulations. While the audit states that Management did not respond to any of the weaknesses or recommendations in their report, Hill stated that measures were taken to remedy the aforementioned weaknesses.
Hill explained part of the reason behind the department’s missing invoices was due to a gap between the fire department and their parent organization, the water district. “We didn’t get a chance to dive into what these receipts were because there were different folks,” said Hill, referencing the town water district who hosts the audit. He also noted that the department has since finished an audit for the fiscal year 2018, bringing them up to date.
Chmielewski remembered feeling surprised that any receipts were missing when he received the FY17 audit report. “We didn’t have that opportunity the first time they did their audit. Nobody ever told us we were missing anything and we didn’t have the opportunity to go back [to check],” he said. In the 2018 audit, Chmielewski said that when the auditor came back with questions, the department was able to go back and locate receipts the auditor couldn’t find.
Hill said the department has since started using a bookkeeping service and switched to payroll when reimbursing firefighters and issuing stipends. Before the department merged with Fire District #3 and transitioned from a nonprofit to a municipality, a gas and fuel reimbursement system was how “they compensated firefighters for most of our history up until recently,” Hill explained.
“When we got the audit, we took steps to correct all of the items... I apologize for being remiss in writing an actual letter,” said Reidinger, Chair of the Prudential Committee. “We did address each and every one of the items. Hopefully we’ve corrected everything.”
The 2017 audit also suggested that the district’s bylaws prevent personnel from conducting solid financial oversight, hurting the district’s ability to input the auditor’s recommendations.
“Frankly, that just stems from our history as a private company,” said Hill. “We receive a bill, we know what account it goes under, we file it.” Now, Hill said, they’ve moved towards requiring multiple signatures to satisfy accountability.
Some residents brought up concerns regarding the department’s budget, which showed over $116,000 unspent funds. Hill clarified that when the department is under budget, those funds go into a savings account for the fire district. “A high interest capital expense account when we need to buy a new truck for instance,” he said. “Because of this policy, there’s a tanker downstairs to haul water to this half of town, which doesn’t have hydrants. We were able to pay for that truck up-front, no interest, with savings, saving the taxpayers that interest.”
Hill reasoned that instead of decreasing their budget request, the fire department is able to save “here and there” whenever they come under budget.
After discussing the FY17 audit, Fire District #3 attorney Dan Richardson took over discussion to outline the legal framework behind the merger. “The boot on the ground answer is it’s going to be the same,” he said.
According to Richardson, the north fire station will remain, but will be property of the town. Duties will be the same but volunteers will be firefighters of the town, not of the fire district. The old fire station building which is currently occupied by Colchester Food Shelf, will be donated to the shelf.
Ladd singled out the food shelf as an important part of the deal. According to Ladd, the founding CCVFC members built the original firehouse on Main Street. “They put their heart and soul into getting that fire station up,” he said. Fire District #3 has rented their old station to the food shelf since 2011. “They had a similar mission to our founding members; to serve their community,” he said.
Otherwise, Richardson noted that no immediate changes are intended. “What’s going to happen after? We don’t know,” he said. “A lot of how this happens will depend on you, how you tell your town how to manage this,” he told the crowd. “You have a very dedicated group of firefighters here who risk safety and health to protect. We want them to continue to do so. We want to free up the volunteer firefighters to be firefighters, not accountants.”
After Richardson discussed the legal framework for the merger, Ladd moved on to some of the department’s concerns moving forward.
Ladd said he had been surprised when, at a meeting in June, the Mallets Bay department took the position that it would be best to merge with the town. Ladd said he had believed the two districts were going to work toward merging. That left CCVFC with just one option other than merging with the town — becoming independent under state law and implementing its own tax to support the department. The prudential board was unwilling to take on that level of responsibility.
He also asked the town if they would consider doing a study using a third neutral party but the study was denied.
“It’s fine to have a difference of opinion. Differences aren’t tolerated that well nowadays,” he said. “Honestly, after 68 years, why wouldn’t they spend a little money on that study? We wish they would’ve. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong.”
While Ladd also raised criticisms regarding his lack of involvement in the transition—”[Their] definition of involvement was quite different from ours,” he said—Reidinger pushed back on this, noting that Ladd chose not to attend meetings or submit questions for the town-wide chief hiring process.
Colchester Emergency Management Coordinator Seth Lasker, who has been spearheading the transition, also addressed Ladd’s comment by noting that Ladd had the “same amount of involvement as any other chiefs in town,” he said. “I wasn’t about to tell the new fire chief how to run their new fire department. You really were offered the input that everyone else was offered.”
Chmielewski, the longest serving chief in CCVFC history, noted his disappointment in the process. “From my perspective, this whole process could’ve been handled a lot better by the town,” he said. “You get a lot more with sugar than with salt. It came across that way... The town chose to be more aggressive as opposed to working with us.”
Multiple firefighters with CCVFC echoed this sentiment. “It’s very hard to see change. It’s very hard to be called thieves... It hurts man, I’m telling you it hurts,” said one volunteer.
Ladd said he planned to meet with the new town-wide fire chief, Steve Bourgeois, who currently serves as chief of Fire District #2 on Monday, Feb. 3. Ladd said he hoped to raise other concerns like what training will look like, whether volunteers will have a compensation option, whether the town’s ISO rating will fluctuate, and whether the station locations would change, with Bourgeois. “I’ve known Steve for a lot of years. I think things can only go up from here,” said Ladd.
While emotions at the meeting were high on both sides, the ultimate message called for understanding. “I am not sure how many of you know this but the trucks downstairs say, ‘Our Family Helping Yours.’ And that’s what we are here. A family,” said Stacey Ladd. “When you feel like your family is being denigrated in some way, that’s hard. Anytime there’s been a hurt, there’s a process that you go through to heal that hurt and move on. This is an opportunity to take steps forward. Change is hard. Some grace in that process would be a really big thing for everybody.”