Climax Volunteer Fire Department under city

Published 2:59 pm Friday, September 18, 2009

Climax City Attorney Paul Fryer spoke at the regular City Council meeting on Sept. 14 at the request of Climax Mayor Liz Phillips in regards to the city’s responsibility and the legal status of the Climax Volunteer Fire Department; as well as zoning and building codes for the city.

Last month, a committee of two from the Climax VFD with Chris Wynn being the speaker requested a closed, executive meeting with the council due to some fire department personnel issues, he said.

Councilman Keith Harrison stated at that time that he understood from last year’s controversy about the city handling fire department’s personnel that the city had no legal right as the Climax VFD was not employees of the city. Therefore, the closed meeting was denied but a committee representing the city was to meet with the firefighters after the council meeting.

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Phillips said she requested the information from the city attorney for the council to better understand their responsibility on behalf of the city regarding the Climax VFD and not to cause confusion and any type of friction.

Fryer stated that it was his legal opinion that the Climax VFD was clearly a part of the City of Climax and not a separate entity unto itself.

“The code of ordinances of the city in section 3-603 clearly states that the City of Climax maintains the Climax VFD that operates under the guidance and supervision of the mayor and city council,” he said.

He said, in 2005 the city entered into an intergovernmental agreement with Decatur County concerning the VFD, and it recites in that agreement that the City of Climax maintains a volunteer fire department, and goes on to state that the city will provide sufficient firefighting apparatus to serve the Climax district area. He said it was clear in this agreement that it was the City of Climax that operates the VFD.

Fryer said it was also his understanding, although he had not check the title or deeds, that the fire department buildings and the land it is located on belongs to the City of Climax and the vehicles belong to the City of Climax.

“So it is my opinion the fire department is clearly an agency of the City of Climax, and whatever consequences flows from that is what flows from that,” Fryer said. “The individuals that work for the fire department, even if they are not paid, in my opinion, are personnel of the City of Climax, and they are subject to supervision and direction, or whatever needs to be done by this body. The ultimate authority is with you.”

He also said he understood that the firefighters were covered under the city’s workmen’s compensation insurance. He said the fact that the council had passed an ordinance that states that the firefighters are to be covered by the city’s workmen’s compensation insurance, which the state law requires, and the state says that if they are volunteers and are covered they become employees.

The financial matters he said, pertaining to the fire department were in his opinion the responsibility of the Climax mayor and city council.

“Any money they receive from the county is really or should be in my opinion directed to the City of Climax and allocated and spent from there as with any other city department. If the financial end of this is not under your control it is a potential problem for the city, because you are responsible under the contract to the county to see to the distribution of those funds, and if you don’t have control of those fund you are responsible for something you don’t even know about; in my opinion that should be address by the council to bring financial workings and income that comes to the fire department under the control of the city council same as any other department,” he said.

Fryer cited the maintenance department as an example.

Fryer stated that basically that was his opinion on matters that he was asked to address. He then accepted questions.

Councilman Ronnie Bishop asked if the council went into an executive meeting on anything to do with the Climax VFD would it be legal.

“I would believe anything about personnel, anything to do with personnel matters that might involve disciplining an employee or let’s say personnel, the word employee might be a little slippery, I believe that you would have the authority to go into an executive session under the sunshine laws if there was a motion and second and a vote to go into executive session to discuss a personnel matter concerning anyone in the City of Climax, that would be appropriate, that is up to you,” Fryer said. He said the Climax VFD did not exist except as part of the City of Climax in his opinion.

A question from the audience was about the donations from individuals that are made each year and funds from fund-raisers if this money should be handled by the city. The response from the attorney was that he felt that it was up to the council to decide some rules about that, he also said he did not know if there was anyway to separate that right now and he did not know if the council knew where that money was going at present. Until that was under control, he said he felt it probably should all come under the council’s control. He said the council was responsible for any grant money or money from the county. But he did say he felt that there could be some action by the council that would authorize some exception for things like this.

Response from the audience was they felt a big can of worms had been opened.

Councilman Harrison stated the money from the county was supposed to go straight to the fire department not to the city of Climax.

According to Harrison, he said the county said it goes directly to the fire department. He cited the controversy last year between the city, County Commissioner Butch Mosley and County District Attorney Brown Moseley. Stating that he was told it was illegal for the city to go into executive session to discuss anything about the fire department as they were not employee of the city, and that was his biggest concern.

Harrison also stated that the treasurer for the fire department gave a full detailed report of the money expenditures and incomes from donations and fund-raisers every three months. He also stated that the majority of the equipment came from the county and then some from grants.

Mayor Phillips said that any money the fire department made or received by donation was handled by the fire department. But any money the city handled was for expenses paid by the city. She said she didn’t want anyone to think the city was going to come in and swoop down on the fire department or have any misunderstanding. She said, “We just want to stay inside the law.”

There were some concerns about the driving of some of the firefighters and speeding in some zones when called out. Fryer said he didn’t want to contradict either the commissioner Mosley or district attorney Moseley, but in his opinion the Climax VFD did not exist or have any legal status outside of being part of the City of Climax.

No action was taken by the council on the fire department.

Climax can’t enforce codes

In the zoning or building code request, last month a petition was presented against Alicia Byrden’s personal care home. Mayor Phillips stated that the city did have zones, but no codes.

Since that time Byrden has withdrawn her request.

However, attorney Fryer stated that on further investigation, there were codes and building codes, but the city had no way of enforcing the codes.

He said the city could do as the City of Brinson does. Brinson has an agreement with the county and the county enforces the codes for Brinson. He said there were eight codes in effect by the state, but Climax had no way of enforcing them. An ordinance could be adopted to enforce the codes someway, Fryer said.

No action was taken by the council.

Other business

 Police Joel Jenkins was not present for a report nor was any member of the VFD. Maintenance man Greg Toole reported on several issues. He stated if anyone had any concerns about the inmates to contact him or any council member or drop a note in the box. He reported fixing the drainage ditch behind the Sloan’s residence, and had purchased one push mower. The burn pile is full and he will be checking each day to see when he can burn. He said he would place the city’s trailer near one’s property if needed to fill with limbs. Paving the walking part of Parker Park was also discussed.

 Delinquent or late water bills were discussed, which were tabled last month. Councilman Harrison said the gray areas needed to be attended to. After much discussion, the council voted 3-1 with Harrison objecting to the amount of the reconnect fee to change the late fee from 10 percent of water bill to a flat rate of $20, and a reconnect fee from $20 to $25 with the due date being the 15 of each month beginning in the month of November. No money can be accepted by the maintenance man.

 Mayor Phillips announced the city had received information form Doris White and the Decatur County Board of Elections and Registration office in regard to the county managing the city’s election each year. The council delayed a decision on this matter until the coming year when this year’s election is over.

 Bathrooms are to be locked at Parker Park due to vandalizes; however, they will be unlocked when an event is to be scheduled.