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Will new councilman affect change?

By Maria Weaver

 

About 70 concerned Hamilton County residents attended a meeting April 25 at the fire hall to discuss the future of the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department.

Seventeen HVFD representatives, including Cody Morris, then-candidate for city council who was elected last Saturday, told the group there are concerns with the relationship between the city and the department.

HVFD is a 501(c)3 entity that receives funds from the city and the county as well as donations from the community. The volunteers provide fire coverage in the city and throughout the county.

Board chairman and deputy chief Terry Griffin told the crowd it takes every member to make the department work. HVFD has an annual contract with Hamilton County, but has never had a contract with the City of Hamilton, which provides a building and $65,000 toward utilities, equipment upkeep and payments on some of the department’s trucks.

“That’s the way it’s been for years, and we’ve been trying to work on a contract for a year,” Griffin said.

But ever since those discussions began, both sides have argued about who owns what and which entity controls the HVFD.

A year ago, the fire hall was closed because of black mold, and Griffin said it has been remediated, but City Administrator Pete Kampfer refuses to let the department back in.

Since then, both sides have “lawyered up,” impeding any progress in reaching an agreement.

Rumors abound, and everyone has an opinion on the best solution. Many want to keep things the way they’ve always been, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it;” while others want to move forward, saying, “We have to keep up with the times.”

One thing is clear – neither side seems willing to budge.

Griffin said the city is trying to take over the HVFD bank accounts and is asking for separated funds between county, city and donated proceeds. He said the city plans to claim it all if the documentation is not provided.

“They are trying to take over our equipment and our bank account,” he said, adding that the city council has requested 36 months of statements, account reconciliations for 2015 through 2017 and a balance sheet for 2018.

“We have to prove the city hasn’t bought equipment – it’s a hassle – or every asset goes to the city,” said Chief Paul Gomez.

HVFD blames Kampfer.

“He got hired, he came in here and thought he had control,” Griffin said. “But he doesn’t. We are a 501(c)3, our own entity. We are volunteers, but he tries to control us. He shut us out with the mold.”

Nan Campbell, who was in the audience, asked if the city charges the department rent, and Griffin replied no.

She asked if the city was responsible for the mold remediation, and Griffin said yes, and it has been abated.

“But they still won’t let us in,” he said. “We had to have a police escort to get our file cabinets.”

Gomez added that the city took the locks off the fire hall and replaced them with its own and added that the city plans to form its own fire department with a paid chief.

In addition, former city employees who also served on the HVFD told the audience they were given ultimatums to choose between their jobs and serving on the fire department.

Even with all the obstacles, Griffin said, “We’re not going to let you down. Our response time hasn’t changed… We just have these couple of issues.”

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the facts,” Gomez said.

“Have you asked to be on the city council agenda?” asked Ralph Lee.

“We’ve tried twice,” Gomez said.

“They won’t let us,” added Springer Courtney.

“These young men give up their family and their life (to be volunteer firefighters,)” said Keith Curry. “I put 35 years in, and we never had this kind of problem. Get ahold of the city council people. It’s ridiculous for the city to pay a lawyer.”

“And it’s ridiculous for the fire department to pay a lawyer,” Campbell said.

“We’re spending your donated money on a lawyer,” Griffin said.

Another firefighter said he and others had an hour-long meeting with (then-mayor Mike Collett), who told them they were “wasting our time” because the council was happy with the city manager.

The meeting regressed into a litany of Kampfer’s wrongs, with several touting his rudeness and unwillingness to compromise and one audience member stating that he was fired from a job in New Mexico because he left the city-run electric company bankrupt.

“It’s not hard to see where the problem is,” said Bill Watson.

“The city has stopped you at every turn,” said Toni Lanfranco, “and they just renewed (Kampfer’s) contract for five years.”

Members of the audience questioned why Kampfer was not present at the meeting, nor were any council members.

“Did you invite the city council?” Lee asked.

“Not personally,” Courtney said.

The firefighters said they posted the meeting around town, in the newspaper and on social media.

“I suggest you invite the city council and ask to be on the agenda,” Lee said.

“The way to resolve this is to get on the city council agenda and have all these people come.

“They will pay attention if enough voters show up. That’s how you control City Hall. They work for us.”

Members of the audience also asked what, specifically, the fire department wants, and the consensus was “not to be under the city” and “get rid of the city manager.”

Kampfer said the next day that he was at an Economic Development Corporation meeting at the time of the fire hall meeting.

“There was no letter, email, phone call or text to me or any member of the council about the meeting last night,” he said.

Since he was unable to attend, he agreed to respond to questions brought up at the meeting.

When asked if the HVFD had requested to be on the agenda, Kampfer said yes, once, on Jan. 11, the day of the regular January meeting. It was too late to be put on the agenda because agendas must be posted 72 hours ahead of meetings, according to the Open Meetings Act.

However, on that date, in the public comments portion of the meeting, HVFD’s consultant, Goldthwaite attorney Charlie Campbell, told the council he had been retained by HVFD to work with the city regarding “structure, accountability and transparency,” with the goal being a memorandum of understanding between the entities.

Kampfer said he is unsure if the fire hall building is mold-free. It has been abated, but to re-occupy or work on the building, state law requires asbestos testing and abatement.

Asked if the city changed the locks on the building, he said, “Yes, we did. The volunteers did not honor the council-posted request to stay out of the office area during mold testing and abatement.”

Asked if the city plans to organize its own fire department with paid firefighters, the city manager said, “No.”

He also denied telling city staff they could not work for the city while also on the fire department and that the city is trying to take over VFD bank accounts.

Asked who submitted the report about mold in the fire hall, Kampfer said Gomez contacted City Hall April 14, 2017, and filed a complaint about black mold in the office area.

City Council members also have received many questions from the community, to which Kampfer responded:

Why is the city suing HVFD?

Kampfer replied, “The City of Hamilton is not, in any form, suing the HVFD.”

Why did the council sneak in a five-year contract renewal for the city administrator before the election?

Kampfer replied, “The city administrator has not been tendered a new five-year contract.”

Why is the city government against the HVFD?

“The city government is not against the HVFD, and there is no documentation or meeting to that effect,” Kampfer replied.

“The city is merely trying to obtain information from HVFD in order to craft necessary agreements between the city and HVFD.”

Has the city made any attempt to communicate with the VFD about the circumstances of the building?

“On June 8, 2017, the mayor appointed a city council advisory committee to study future facility improvement requirements and funding for the City of Hamilton Fire Station,” Kampfer said.

“The first committee action item was to prepare a mold remediation protocol not to exceed $5000, if that was desired.”

The committee met again on July 20, and on Nov. 29, the HVFD board and city administrator met at city hall to discuss the mold protocol, and the following month, then-police chief Robert McGinnis met with HVFD at the county annex and advised the group that the city had contracted with a mold abatement contractor to begin immediately.

What happened to the corner of the fire hall building, and why has it not been fixed?

Kampfer said a volunteer firefighter backed a vehicle without assistance and struck the wall. The city received the financial settlement from the insurance carrier on April 18.

There also was a truck accident in 2017, which cost $3416 to repair, he said.

As a result, the line item for city vehicles/equipment, budgeted at $2000, is at 406.58 percent of budget, or $6131.57.

What does the city of Hamilton actually furnish for the HVFD, and how much of this is actual cash funds?

Kampfer provided a budget page from the general fund, in which the fire department is allocated $63,650 per year, not including water, which the city furnishes for both in-town and in-county fires.

Of that amount, active firemen receive $6000 collectively, retired firemen $2700, gas and diesel $300, minor tools and supplies $250.

Also, electricity $1500, gas $1500, water/sewer $150, city vehicles and equipment $2000, building and yard $5000, miscellaneous $250, debt service lease principal $38,400 and debt service lease interest $5600.

He added that approximately $2450 was spent on mold testing and abatement, and there were several expenditures in 2016-17 resulting from volunteers dropping rags into the truck engines while they were running, breaking several components.

In addition, Kampfer said, the county contributes $7500 to the HVFD, and board members estimate they receive $20,000 to $30,000 in donations and via fund-raisers.

“The department is required per its bylaws to receive a financial report at each of its monthly business meetings,” Kampfer said.

“Copies or samples of these reports were requested but were not provided. Department members indicate that the board officers may receive the reports, but most members indicated that they were only vaguely aware of the financial status of the department.”

When questioned about annual budget preparation or planning, Kampfer said the department officers answered, “We don’t do that.”

“No documentation could be located indicating budget discussions in regard to specific allocation of funds or basic budgetary planning,” Kampfer said.

“Now, when dealing with taxpayer money, it is extremely important to keep taxpayer funds and other revenue separate to adequately and legally account for the use of taxpayer monies,” Kampfer said.

“Having been unable to review any budget documents or financial statements, it is impossible to determine how the department is tracking and accounting for the different revenue sources.”

He added that the HVFD bylaws state that “the treasurer will assist a CPA in the tracking of all these records.”

The department also has not reported to the state’s Texas Fire Incident Reporting System, which is voluntary for volunteer departments but necessary for receiving Texas Forestry Service grants, which HVFD has received.

Calendar year 2013 was the last full year HVFD reported to TEXFIRS, and it reported 131 calls, according to data provided to the city.

Kampfer said he works at the direction of the council and would like to see the issue resolved.

“HVFD is a typical volunteer fire department in rural Texas,” Kampfer said. “It is staffed by committed personnel who provide a critical service to their friends, family and neighbors. The department is operationally sound but is sorely lacking in managing the business end of the department.

“Each entity has its strengths,” he said. “HVFD is operationally sound, whereas the city has extensive expertise in administrative functions. A true partnership between these entities would serve the citizens well.

“Both organizations have some serious trust issues to overcome, but an open, frank dialogue would go a long way toward bridging their differences.

“Each side must come together to establish future goals and to set expectations from their partner organization and then formalize these into a written agreement,” Kampfer said.

“Working together, they can ensure a strong future for HVFD and the citizens of Hamilton.”

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