Richland City and Township Meet to Discuss Forming Fire Board

Casey Jarmes
The News-Review

RICHLAND – Last summer, tempers flared in Richland and the surrounding townships over the management of the Richland Fire Department, with both the City of Richland and Richland Township claiming ownership of the department and thus authority to make decisions about insurance and the state of the fire station. During this tense feud, several members of the city council attempted to remove Fire Chief Mitch Ehrenfelt, framing this as the acceptance of a resignation Ehrenfelt stated he had not submitted. In the November election, fireman John Capps was elected as Mayor of Richland. In addition, two of the three council members who attempted to remove Ehrenfelt lost their reelection bids.

During last year’s political turmoil, Ehrenfelt repeatedly advocated creating a fire board to manage the department’s finances, comprised of representatives from the City of Richland and the four townships the department covers (Richland, Blackhawk, Clay, and Dutch Creek). On May 20, a special meeting of the Richland City Council was finally held to discuss 28e agreements and the idea of creating a fire board, with the Richland Township Trustees, Richland City Attorney Dustin Hite, Keokuk County Attorney Amber Thompson, Ehrenfelt and several firefighters, and members of the community in attendance.

“I see this as finally we’re moving forward, not standing still,” said Mayor Capps at the start of the meeting. “We’re not going backwards. We’re moving forward…Whatever’s in the past, it’s in the past. We ain’t gonna get nowhere by bringing it up, and I tell myself that also, because I’ve got grudges and stuff like that.”

Ehrenfelt explained his long-term goal was to have the fire department set up and funded correctly by all entities who receive fire protection. He explained that the fire board would be its own entity, with representatives from the townships and city, put in charge of controlling funds going towards fire operations.

One attendee asked how people would be selected to serve and what credentials they would need to have. Ehrenfelt stated he believed they would need to be chosen from council members and trustees, because only elected officials are allowed to disperse taxpayer dollars. Hite stated that board members did not have to be elected officials, but that it would be easier if they were. Thompson stated board members could be appointed by the council or trustee boards. Capps stated he would prefer board members to be elected officials.

Ehrenfelt stated the council and trustees would need to discuss if the representation would be dependent on tax dollars, giving the example of one township hypothetically giving $10,000 and another giving $20,000, and asked if they should receive the same number of votes. Hite stated that it would need to be negotiated. Councilwoman Brei Beam asked if the fire department would be a separate entity or be owned by the Richland Township. Hite stated that it was possible for townships to own fire departments, giving the Cedar Township Fire Department in Mahaska County as an example, but that it would require more work from the township. Thompson stated it was most common for departments to be owned by cities, although that hasn’t worked out very well in Richland, because cities have more power and money, meet regularly and have city clerks. Ehrenfelt asked if the fire board was separate, would the firemen be able to use money and have the board look over purchases later. Thompson stated the board would have to approve payments, but that the board could give the fire chief or treasurer approval to make small purchases without prior approval

Capps stated that the City of Richland owns the fire station and pays for electricity, which they could either negotiate to charge the fire board for or have as part of the city’s contribution. Hite noted that, if the fire board is a separate entity, it will have to purchase separate insurance and workers’ compensation, because the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool, the current insurance provider for the City of Richland, will not insure an independent fire board. Thompson noted that some liability for accidents could fall onto the city and township. An attendee asked if the fire board would be responsible for arranging physicals. Capps replied that there won’t be physicals. Thompson stated that Richland Fire Co, the 501c3 the department uses to raise money, could spend money without board approval. She asked who owns the department’s equipment, because that could affect insurance liability. Ehrenfelt stated that large expenditures are currently paid for by the township and grants, while the 501c3 money is used for maintenance and day-to-day operations. Hite said this was the opposite of how he’d normally seen things done in the past and recommended that the fire board own any equipment.

Thompson said that the first step to creating a separate entity would be to figure out who owns what and what is being donated to the fire board. Hite stated that the fire board would need an exit plan, so the city and townships would be able to decide year to year if they want to continue being part of the fire board. An attendee asked if the fire department would be paid by taxes or charge per fire. Hite stated some departments in Poweshiek County charged per fire, but that it makes it harder for cities to budget for fires and is hard for departments to collect fees. Capps stated that rural fire departments like Richland’s are kept afloat by vas community support, which would be lost if the department charged per fire.

An attendee asked if the City of Richland would donate water or send a bill to the fire board. Councilman Mike Hadley called this irreverent “nickel and diming” because the fire department only uses around $1,000 per year. Capps stated that that money still goes towards infrastructure and that whether the water cost was donated or billed would be decided by the 28e agreement.

Thompson stated that the fire board being a seperate entity would cause problems with duplicated insurance, but may be worth it to the council and trustees because of the past few years of disagreements. Beam asked if the department could legally be kept by the city, with the fire board still making decisions. Thompson said that was the most common way for fire departments to be run, but that township trustees may object to the city having the final say. Hite said a separate entity might be the compromise needed to settle the problems with the fire department. Thompson stated that a separate entity would not have as much immunity, but would retain some if board members were elected officials acting in good faith.

A trustee from the Dutch Creek Township noted that his township is only partially covered by the department and gives less money and raised concerns that trustees would be less invested in making good decisions. An attendee suggested giving permanent spots to the Richland Township and City of Richland, with a third seat rotating between the townships. An attendee suggested having the fire board meet quarterly instead of monthly. Ehrenfelt noted that the fire department rarely goes to the trustees for large expenditures, meaning the fire board meetings would be short. Capps stated that the fire board could hire their own clerk; Hite said they could but it would be an expense. Thompson said the fire department could appoint someone from the department to be a clerk for the fire board.

Thompson stated that she and Hite could draft the paperwork to fire board, but before that would need to know who owns what and what is being donated to the board. Hite noted that a 28e agreement would likely go through multiple revisions, something that would take months, but that it was normal for government to move slowly. Capps asked what will happen in the meantime if the city is audited again. Thompson said the fact that the city is working on something should keep it safe.

Hadley stated he wasn’t worried about the Auditor’s Office, because he had never seen it take action, even in cities with major problems like embezzlement, and that the Auditor’s Office usually just tells cities what they’ve done wrong and asks them to fix it. Hite stated that the Auditor’s Office does recommend serious cases to the Attorney General’s Office. Thompson stated there is a difference between mistakes and deliberate dishonesty.

Capps asked if the city could create a committee to discuss the fire board. Hite said it could but meetings would need to be open to the public. Hite stated he and Thompson needed a clear idea of what the city and townships wanted before drafting a 28e agreement. A fireman asked if the department could make requests. Ehrenfelt stated he wanted the fire department to be simple to operate and run, but that things had been “muddy” for so long because no one knew who paid for what. He said that firefighters had been made to do things they didn’t want to do. He stated that, under a fire board, they will be able to come up with simple solutions instead of going through different entities. Hadley stated it needs to be set up so the city, townships, and fire department are all protected, but simplified to put an end to bickering and nothing being accomplished.

Hite asked about the relevant contributions of the different townships and the city. Various trustees and councilmen said that the department receives around $25,000 from Richland Township, utilities, the building and $9-10,000 from the City of Richland, $7-8,000 from Blackhawk, $1,400 from Dutch Creek, and $3,800 from Clay. Beam asked if quarterly meetings would mean the department would have to wait longer to get approval for repairs. Hite stated the fire board could set an emergency expenditure limit and could hold emergency meetings in dire circumstances, like if a fire truck’s engine blew. Capps stated that the fire department could be given a yearly budget.

One attendee asked if the Richland QRS would be included in the fire board, because they respond to the same calls. Thompson stated this could cause problems, because the townships tax for fire protection, not medical services. Thompson asked who pays for repairs on the fire station. Hadley stated that the city has historically paid for building repairs. Ehrenfelt stated he wanted the city to continue providing utilities and the building as their contribution to the department, but requested that the city begin setting aside money to purchase a new building in a few years.

The attendees discussed possible arrangements for the number of seats on the fire board, but made no decision. The meeting ended with the city and townships instructed to pass on financial information and requests to Ehrenfelt, who will pass it on to the two lawyers, who will draft a 28e agreement for the new fire board.



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