After months of controversy surrounding the fire department’s budget, Walkerville firefighters and medical responders have announced that they will “walk off the job” next week if officials do not adopt a budget so the department can continue operations.
“The firefighters and medical responders met tonight (Monday, April 17) and have notified us that they are all walking off the job on the 27th if we have no money to operate on,” states a post on the Walkerville Area Fire and Rescue Facebook page.
The fire department is operated by the fire authority, which includes four different municipalities — Leavitt, Colfax and Elbridge townships and the Village of Walkerville. Members of the fire authority board include two members of each incorporating unit.
The fire department’s budget year begins March 31, which was the deadline for a new budget to be in place. So far, no budget has been adopted, and the fire department has no funds to operate, according to firefighter Leonard Amador.
Fire department Administrator Jerry Frick, who had been the fire chief for 35 years and has been on the department for over 50 years, has been the target of accusations by officials regarding the budget. However, the firefighters stand behind Frick and believe he is being unfairly targeted.
“You couldn’t ask for a better person,” Amador said. “Jerry Frick has well over 50 years on this department. He has put his life and soul into this department.”
The Frick family has a long history of serving on the fire department. Frick’s son, Greg Frick, took over as fire chief for his father in 2000. Prior to Jerry serving as fire chief, his father Lyle was the fire chief, beginning in 1945. The Walkerville Fire Department has existed since 1924, Amador said.
One source of contention is a washer and dryer ordered for the firefighters’ turnout gear. A “misappropriation of funds” to purchase the washer and dryer was cited at the February meeting. However, Frick said he was able to secure a grant for $18,500 to pay for the equipment. The local contribution for that purchase is $882, he said.
In the meantime, as the fire department has no funds, Frick has paid some of the department’s bills out of his own pocket in order to keep it in operation, Amador and Assistant Fire Chief Al Purdy told OCP last week. Jerry and his wife Verla paid the $400 electric bill, which was past due, they said. The electricity was within days of being shut off, they said. The couple also paid the department’s minimum payment on its credit card, they said.
The department’s fuel tank is empty, Amador said, so the fire trucks cannot be refueled until funds are available. Also, the volunteer firefighters, who get paid per run as a form of reimbursement for their time and expenses, were supposed to be paid April 15, and thus far no one has received a check.
A fire board meeting is set for Saturday, April 22, at 9 a.m. at the Elbridge Township Hall. It is one of several meetings that have taken place over the last few months regarding the fire department’s budget. A few of the meetings were attended by uniformed officers of the Oceana County Sheriff’s Office due to the potential of violence erupting.
“The fire authority is a separate unit of government that runs the fire department,” said Okemos, Michigan attorney William Fahey during a heated fire authority meeting last February. Fahey’s firm was hired by the townships involved to sort out the budget fiasco. The fire department is “ultimately answerable to the incorporating units, and each of the incorporating units are answerable to (the citizens),”he said.
OCP called Fahey for further comment, and he referred questions to Leavitt Township Treasurer David Kruppe. A phone message left for Kruppe was never returned.
Leavitt Township Supervisor Richard Kolbe has resigned in the midst of the controversy.
“At that time (when the firefighters quit), anyone’s fire insurance will probably be canceled due to the fact that there is no fire department,” states the fire department’s Facebook post. “When you’re told mutual aid departments will take care of you, then ask them which one will be covering my house and check out the definition of mutual aid.”
Amador said township officials have wrongfully cited mutual aid from other departments will fill in if the Walkerville department ceases operations. “You are kicked out of the mutual aid pact when you quit being a viable department,” he said.
The department covers a 130 square-mile radius, and as of last week, the department has handled 80 emergency calls since Jan. 1, Amador said. The 21-member department also includes a rescue unit with Jaws of Life equipment that handles life-threatening emergencies.
“Every time we turn around, it seems like there’s a knife in our back,” said Purdy, who has been on the department for 30 years.
“Our job is to protect the citizens — we took a vow. They’re not letting us do our jobs,” Amador said.
Although it feels like they’ve been “fighting a never-ending battle,” Purdy, Amador and firefighter Leanne Amador (Leonard’s wife) said they just want the officials to get the budget settled so they can perform their duties as firefighters.
“Pay the damn budget and quit bickering,” Purdy said.