The day – Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company takes dispute with town to public opinion tribunal

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Salem – The Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company informed all households here about its legal dispute with the city by sending them a seven page mailing last weekend.

“Encourage them to sit down with us and prioritize reaching an agreement to continue services to protect the health and safety of the citizens of the city of Salem and its visitors,” the company said. about the Board of Directors of Selectmen.

The consignment, signed by President Cheryl Philopena and Fire Chief Pete Silva, alleged that the impending termination of an emergency services agreement between the city and the Gardner Lake Fire Company – which was canceled by elected officials in a 4-0 vote last September, from June 30 – creates a “massive risk of liability and public safety” with far-reaching effects.

“Selectmen’s board members knowingly put the city, and subsequently taxpayers, in that position, by canceling the deal without cause and failing to negotiate a new deal,” the company said in the mail.

Philopena and Silva said terminating the deal could “potentially” affect the fire company’s ability to respond to a fire. They also said it could affect the city’s costs for third party liability, workers’ compensation and auto insurance as well as insurance costs for residents if the city was not able to. meet its legal requirements to provide ambulance and fire protection services.

Salem has two volunteer fire companies and employs two firefighters on weekdays.

First Selectman Kevin Lyden insisted on Monday that there would be “no downtime” due to the lack of a deal. The government’s 2021-2022 operating budget of $ 4.19 million approved by voters in May includes $ 46,685 for ambulance services and $ 71,300 for the two fire companies.

These funds include approximately $ 50,000 for a “nominal fee” to compensate three volunteer paramedics per weekend shift at $ 30 per person. Lyden also clarified in a June 16 letter to Philopena and Silva that the city will not request the return of any motor vehicles, trucks, trailers or watercraft, as authorities hope to negotiate a new deal with the fire company.

“The equipment is there, the nominal costs are paid. Insurance is paid. We provide full-time firefighters who work in their post and [Salem Volunteer Fire Company]. We provide all of these things, ”said Lyden.

The Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company is a non-profit organization incorporated in 1956, has its own building and ambulance, and has its own bylaws and board of directors. Although it relies on some funding from the city, the organization says it provides emergency services as an independent business and not as a public agency or municipal service. Conversely, the Salem Volunteer Fire Company does not have an ambulance and its fire station and the land it is on is owned by the city.

Last April, the Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Company sued the city to recover funds, currently calculated at $ 40,940, that the organization says it needs to run the ambulance service when paid staff are unavailable. not in use. The funding issue is linked to the dispute over Lyden’s decision last year to ban her two paid firefighters from also serving as volunteers.

The disagreement is based on conflicting interpretations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which states that employees of a public body cannot volunteer to provide their employer with the same services they are paid to perform.

Lyden refers to a legal opinion from city attorney Brian K. Estep, advising officials that a paid firefighter who works at one of the city’s fire stations by day and volunteers at night – or the weekend – would work for the “same public body” and thus violate federal law.

Lyden said the law exists to protect paid employees who could potentially feel compelled to perform unpaid work as a condition of employment if federal protections were not in place.

Gardner Lake volunteers, represented by lawyer Jacques Parenteau, claim that they are independent agencies and not subject to the law.

The lawsuit could have implications for other cities seeking to adhere to federal labor laws and volunteer departments like Gardner Lake that claim to be independent and not under the law. Most towns in eastern Connecticut cannot afford fully paid services and rely on volunteers.

Philopena told The Day on Monday that the funds they were seeking for the trial covered the difference between the $ 40 “nominal fee” the ambulance company pays its volunteers and the $ 30 reimbursed by the city. She said volunteers and firefighters agreed last year that the higher amount would bring Gardner Lake volunteers back to the same level paid by the city to paid weekend volunteers from the Salem Fire Company, although that the agreement was never finalized.

She said the deal had awaited Lyden’s review and approval for 15 months, but the fire company got no response.

The company began paying allowances directly from its ambulance funds in September 2019 as part of an effort to further isolate the independent organization from the city under federal law, according to Philopena. The organization would then bill the city for the reimbursement. She said Gardner Lake donated $ 40 instead of $ 30 – even though the city had not approved the new rate – because “it was fair” to the volunteers.

Lyden said elected officials decided in a meeting with fire marshals at last summer’s executive session that they did not necessarily disagree with the draft allocation deal reached by the fire marshals. Gardner Lake officials and fire marshals – but elected officials wanted to “keep it as it is right now” while the lawsuit is ongoing.

The first selectman also cited the lawsuit as part of the selectmen’s motivation to rescind the city’s emergency services deal with the Gardner Lake fire company when they did.

Lyden said the city has asked the company to negotiate changes to the deal “on several occasions” in the past.

“But the trial probably hampered negotiations,” he said.

Philopena said the revenue from the ambulance company, which would normally be used to purchase a new ambulance, is now used to pay allowances owed to them by the city and to cover legal fees.

“I just wish someone could tell me why it was so hard to sit down and talk about it when none of that money was to be wasted,” she said.

Parenteau, the attorney for the Gardner Lake fire company, said the public needs to know what is going on.

According to the website for the state’s judicial branch, a trial will not take place until June 2022 – if so.

“There are many forums for resolving disputes and one of the forums is the public, the marketplace,” he said. “Let the debate go; let people settle it among themselves, because the justice system is expensive and it takes a long time.”


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