Town manager explains town’s position on stipends in e-mail to fire chiefs

by Dennis Heath
China Town Manager

I watched the LiveStream video of the select board meeting yesterday and have since spoken with the select board chairman. It was apparent that my initial request of Mr. Evans was well-founded to provide what was going to be discussed in writing, since the lack of that information was detrimental to a healthy discussion of the concerns. However, I am writing this to help answer the questions I took from the video. Rather than quote chapter and verse, I have attached the two documents that were mentioned at the meeting.

1. The attached FLSA manual, which I am grateful to Bill Van Wickler for emailing to us, provides a comprehensive discussion of the requirements (including the various statutory references) the town will follow and require before stipend funds are disbursed. While it may have been thought that standby time can be used to calculate stipends, and that may be part of the disagreement here, being on standby is nothing more than the indication of a volunteer’s willingness to be available around the clock. Stipends are expected to acknowledge actual participation in firefighting activity. What I take from the FLSA manual is that if you have a volunteer assigned to a shift at the fire station, that would be an appropriate determination for stipend calculation. To date, your respective practices have been to record responses to calls. It is my understanding that all personal equipment is provided by the fire department, so the only things left for calculation are total hours, total miles and total calls and trainings. Those are what are included in the spreadsheet attached to help determine the total department stipend request. I put in the provision for the individual expense items in the event you have such occurrences, but the receipts must be provided to support that.

2. It was mentioned that the town meeting approved the budgeted amounts, and it is now the responsibility of the town to give those moneys to the departments. A budgeted amount is just that; an amount authorized for disbursement. However, the treasurer is responsible to see that sufficient detail underlies the expense request to recommend it to the select board on the warrant. While the departments may feel this is “not trusting us,” it should be understood that there has not been sufficient evidence to show that the amount requested is valid. One of Mr. Evans’ questions had to do with interpretation of the statutes/regulations. With respect to my duties as treasurer for the town, I am operating under the following: “The treasurer of any municipality shall not pay out any funds for an account or claim against the municipality unless the account or claim is itemized and declared to be a public record. Notwithstanding Title 17-A, section 4-A, violation of this section is a Class E crime, punishable by a fine of not more than $300 or by imprisonment for not more than 30 days, or both.” (30-A MRSA 5604) The requests of the departments for funds are viewed by me as a claim against the municipality, and therefore must be itemized to my satisfaction. The operational funds requested are sufficiently itemized, but the stipend requests are not. As you all know, at our last collective meeting I showed how the stipend amounts would be calculated using data you supplied to me, and that total for the past year and a half was short of $10,000 for the three fire departments and the rescue department combined. That informs me that the taxpayers of the town have now provided more than $63,000 for stipends in two fiscal years, but only about $10,000 can be validated under the provisions of the regulations when using the data supplied by the departments.

3. For now the second time, it has been suggested that we ignore the requirements for proper calculation of these stipends since it would be unlikely enforcement action would occur. This suggestion is irresponsible and rejected outright, because it indicates a lack of professional ethics and disrespect for the law. As town manager and treasurer, I took the following oath: “I, Dennis L. Heath do swear, that I will support the Constitution of the United States and of this State, so long as I shall continue a citizen thereof, and will faithfully discharge, to the best of my abilities, the duties incumbent on me as [Town Manager and Treasurer] according to the constitution and laws of the state so help me God.” Failure to properly discharge my duties exposes me to administrative and civil punishment that I am unwilling to face for the convenience of this suggestion. (30-A MRSA 2607) Each of the fire chiefs took the same oath when appointed as chief of your respective volunteer fire department, so I am confident you are equally determined to uphold that oath.

4. The recurring argument that the fire/rescue departments are independent corporations not subject to the authority of the town was mentioned. It is well understood that the fire/rescue departments are independently incorporated volunteer organizations. However, the moneys requested are public funds subject to public accounting and audit. As mentioned in paragraph 2 above, it is the responsibility to the public that drives me to require the stipend calculation be provided prior to disbursing those funds. If the fire/rescue departments are unwilling to provide the substantiating calculations for the stipend request, then the funds disbursement will not be recommended to the select board on a warrant.

5. Finally, it was the question of Mr. Evans as to whether the select board “intends to unlawfully withhold funds from the volunteer departments.” The select board fully intends to approve disbursement of funds to the volunteer fire and rescue departments, but within the constraints discussed above. Any delay in disbursement will not be the responsibility of the select board or the town. The departments have been equipped with the ability to provide the required substantiation for the stipend funds, so it is in their control as to whether the disbursement of those funds is delayed or not.

I am hopeful this will answer some of the questions from Monday evening and make clear what is required for disbursing the stipend funds. I welcome productive discussion for implementing this in advance of the new fiscal year to avoid any delay in disbursing these funds.


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