Wednesday, May 28, 2008

TOSS vs. SSVFD........My Last Post

This is my last posting on this specific matter and I am reconsidering whether there is any true benefit to this blog. There was no intent in my previous posts to exacerbate this situation. My intent was to bring this to your attention.

My analogy regarding the Stages of Demise was written as a warning of what could happen, not a prediction nor a plan.

The lines have been drawn in the sands of Southern Shores, the outcome remains to be seen. Maybe, just maybe, common sense and reason will prevail over indignation and emotion. At any rate, in situations like this, it seems that government usually wins, good or bad. After all, there's the old adage “You can't fight Town Hall”.

As for myself, I can only express my own feelings with the term “heart-sick”. After 24 years of service I have to wonder: What does it amount to? What was I thinking all those years? I cannot help but feel that this is no longer a “Town of Volunteers” , it's more like: A Community of Millionaires Quibbling Over Pennies.

And now I can't resist the opportunity for one last analogy:

Jean-Luc Picard and his heroic crew of the Starship Enterprise having volunteered to explore the far reaches of the Universe, are now in contact with the Borg. Are we watching the last episode of this series?

You will be assimilated, resistance is futile!

Friday, May 23, 2008

My new approach to the topic at hand......................

I understand that, yesterday, the Board of the SSVFD was to meet with Council Members Hess and Stroud to (presumably) discuss the recent differences between their respective organizations. Of course, I was sorely tempted to contact either a Board or Council Member (or both) to see what transpired. But I have been able to restrain myself up to this point so that I might conduct an experiment in the dynamics of the situation.

The basis of this experiment is to test the often quoted adage, “history shall repeat itself”. Of course, that is, if we do not learn from the past. Along with this, I am formulating a new theory that, as there are five distinct and identifiable stages of grief (or crisis)which are unavoidable, there are also several distinct and identifiable stages in the demise of a Volunteer Fire (Rescue or EMS) Department. These, I hope, are avoidable.

When I moved to Southern Shores during the summer of 1984, to the best of my memory, five of the the six fire departments on the Dare County north beaches were volunteer: Nags Head (with a paid Chief), Collington, Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores, and Duck. Although a “combination” department, I believe that Kill Devil Hills had a fairly strong volunteer program at the time. Today, the SSVFD is the last all volunteer department, and largest pool of on-scene personnel available this side of Roanoke Island.

As an historical parallel I'll be using a Volunteer Fire Department, Inc., which is now a town, combination, fire department. I will apologize in advance if in this process I somehow mis-state or otherwise err in my memory regarding the events that lead to the transition of this VFD to a paid department.

Please note: “Names have been changed to protect the innocent”I am trying to relate this in the simplest terms I can to try and keep this as brief as possible. Those readers who may recognize these circumstances and are much more knowledgeable than I regarding the VFD in this parable need not be insulted nor incensed if I have left out some detail of which I am unaware.


Sometime, I believe during the early '90's, a VFD reported to the Town their need for a new fire truck. For some reason, that I am not aware of, the town ended up ordering a new truck to present to the VFD. Given that the usual process for purchasing fire trucks includes the input of the fire department, in order to suit the specific needs of the department, the bulk of volunteers seemed to be resentful that the town had done this without their input. As I remember the situation, I believe this created a rift between the VFD and the town, with the volunteers not understanding why the town council would meddle in their affairs, while the council could not understand why the VFD did not seem to fully appreciate the purchase of the fire truck. Ultimately, the truck was delivered, accepted by the VFD and placed in service.

Unfortunately, over time, this rift seemed to grow into outright distrust. This, along with, complaints from some disaffected volunteers, caused the town council to start looking into and enter into the internal politics and operations of the VFD. (It is, after all, a part of the human condition that there are internal politics in every organization, healthy or otherwise.) Then there were accusations of fiscal misconduct in the VFD, so out of a sense of governmental responsibility the town council initiated an investigation into those accusations.

The Stages of Demise.

Stage 1. Denial: this may be expressed in being unable to accept what is happening or not acknowledging the situation or it's severity.

Town: They (VFD) can't be that upset about this. They should be more cooperative and conciliatory in this matter. They must have something to hide.

VFD: Why don't they (Town) trust us all of a sudden. We do our best, train hard, and get the job done.

Stage 2. Anger: produces the desire to fight back or get even with the offending party accelerating toward a direct confrontation.

VFD: They have no right to tamper with our internal affairs. They had better stop and leave us alone.

Town: They have no right to resist us. They had better cooperate or they'll regret this. The taxpayers expect action, we'll get a court order and settle this.

Stage 3. Bargaining: actually in this case nonproductive non-bargaining.

VFD: Lets give them a show of force and turn up at their meetings en mass, in uniform. They need to to know we cannot be intimidated. If they don't leave us alone we'll walk out and lock the doors.

Town: We've gotten a court injunction to keep their Fire Chief away from the VFD station and any dispatches. We've contact the SBI to investigate. We'll show them we won't be intimidated, if they continue to resist we'll padlock their station and lock them out.

Stage 4. Depression: overwhelming feelings of frustration, bitterness, doubt, or guilt.

VFD: How can we ever regain the trust of the citizens? Will the Town take over the VFD?
Did we do something wrong? We were in the right weren't we?

Town: If they had only cooperated we could have settled this without being forced to be so harsh. We were protecting the public interests, weren't we?

Stage 5. Acceptance: in this case more like resignation to the realities.

Town: So the result of the investigation produced nothing and there is no prosecution, they brought this on themselves. We'll be certain to keep an eye on them so the don't get out of hand again.

VFD: Our Chief has resigned, we're fighting among ourselves, this is really a mess. Can't we try to start over?

Conclusion: In my opinion the VFD never truly recovered. The spirit of proud service and camaraderie had been broken. The only option left was to hire a paid Fire Chief from outside the VFD and rebuild the department on a new model, as a combination department.

Does history have to be repeated here in Southern Shores? Can this “train wreck” be avoided? Or is the momentum to great?

Does my analogy between Grief and Demise work? Can any of the above stages be mitigated or avoided altogether?

I, personally, would rather have this experiment fail, and the progression above stall before my conclusion becomes a prediction. But I fear we are already at Stage 2. Anger. If it hasn't happened already, resolve on both sides, has begun to jell. Soon, if not already, the threats will begin to fly.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Reply...........................

Received an email last night with the following comment:

"I don't know whether he did justice to the topic " in just a few words" but it was way too long for me to read and comprehend. Someone needs to put out a short synopsis of what the problem is. Sorry to be so dense but long winded dissertations on any subject will lose the readers interest fast."

I've eliminated the sender's name as I don't believe it's necessary to reveal the identity.

Thanks for the comments XXXX, I understand. I stopped where I did, for now, because of the length and complexity. I'm certain i probably left out some key point that would help you understand. I'm pretty sure that with more background and detail (good grief) that you might better understand.

Basically, it is my belief that, the department could be inadvertently pushed into oblivian through some political game that is being played out. I'm not even certain of the purpose.

Volunteer's save this community literally millions of dollars each year. But they like to think they are truly appreciated, trusted, and are performing a valuable service. Feed them those three things and they thrive. Treat them with lip service as praise and imply distrust, they will find something else to do and fast They don't like politics and controversy, they just want to do what they are trained to do.

As an organization they are being treated by this council with the atmosphere of distrust as if they have mismanaged the business affairs of the department. I believe the SSVFD is and has been a good steward of their finances, and is a healthy viable organization. I may not, as a member agree with everything the goes on, but I tend to be an outcome oriented person. What I watch for is what happens when the dispatch goes out. If there are any internal differences at that point, they get set aside in order to get the job done.

And, this department does an outstanding job. There are paid departments on the beach that at times have had to reply to dispatches with "Not Responding" or "Standing By". To my knowledge it has never happened in the history of the SSVFD.

Why would it be in the interest of the citizens to ruin this? What is the purpose of strangling the SSVFD budget while reducing the tax rate and begin to pay council members $300 a month each?

I'm honestly concerned that this could lead to the end of the SSVFD. Is the Town Council prepared for that? This could easily lead to one of two realities, a paid Fire Dept. which would easily double the tax rate or double the insurance rates. Take a look at your tax bill then call your insurance agent and see which one you would prefer.

The SSVFD is a contracted agent of the Town. Council should hire them and stay out of their operations, let them do their job, or for more direct control start their own town department.

I don't know how else I could put it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Is the Town of Southern Shores to Poor to Afford the SSVFD?

As you may note from my previous articles, I have been an active member of the Southern Shores Volunteer Fire Department. To be exact I joined the SSVFD in December of 1984, so this is my 24th year with the department. During those 24 years I have served in several roles, from Firefighter to Chief, including a couple of terms as Chairman of the Board of Directors. I wanted to state this up front to let you know the following may be somewhat biased.

In case you were not aware, the Southern Shores Volunteer Fire Department in not a town fire department. It is a separate non-profit corporation registered and incorporated under the laws of the State of North Carolina, operating under contracts of agency with both Dare County (for Martin's Point) and TOSS. Currently, there are 30 eligible (voting) members operating out of the two stations (East Dogwood and South Dogwood), plus around 15 support members assisting with other department activities. From Nags Head to Duck this is the last all volunteer department left on the Dare County North Beaches, all the others have three or more paid personnel.

In all these years I have never seen the relationship between TOSS and the SSVFD quite like it is today. Not since the early '90s when TOSS considered taking over the department, have I seen such tension between the two organizations. Now, I'm concerned, not just for the future of the department, but also for the future of the community and the taxpayers.

Over the last couple of years, contract discussions have resulted in friction to the extent that the SSVFD leadership has sought alternative means of support other than contracting directly with the town. As an example, they sought to accomplish this recently by expanding the existing Dare County/Martin's Point contract to include Southern Shores in the Fire Tax District. Although the county was amenable the town council did not agree to pass a resolution to effect that change.

So, now we are in a new town budget planning cycle and the friction increases further. Noted in my previous posting the SSVFD requested an increase, but it was recommended by the Town Manager that their budget should remain the same as the previous year. A $50,200 reduction from what had been requested. Why? When asked specifically why, by Council member Hess, the Town manger was unable to respond with a reasonable explanation. In the budget message he stated “...taking into consideration the Town's financial position, the status of the national, regional, and local economies, and the prior fiscal year appropriations for th fire service, I recommend an appropriation of $291,400.00 for the Fire Department Contract”.

So, are we to assume that the “Town's financial position” is the problem? Or is it the “status of national, regional and local economies”? I contend that it is none of the above!

Perhaps Council Member Stroud said it best when he stated “Let's not dance around the issue, let's get this out into the open” (not an exact quote, but I believe I have the gist of it), What is the real problem?

The SSVFD is the last department left on the beach without a full time paid Chief and that ---- is about to change.

In the past, the Fire Chief of the SSVFD was elected by the membership on an annual basis. A few weeks ago, as per the corporation's bylaws, the membership voted to change the bylaws to allow the Board of Directors to hire a Fire Chief, with a vote of 21 to 5 in favor. I believe this, as it became the primary topic after Councilman Stroud's statement, is the real reason the budget request was cut. Simply a political ploy to place the SSVFD in a financial position that precludes acting as directed by the membership. An attempt to interfere in the internal operations of the SSVFD.

Throughout it's existence, the SSVFD has only requested what was needed to operate efficiently and to maximize the ISO rating. Contract budget requests have gone up and down as each years needs have changed. If anyone has any concern as to the financial stewardship of the SSVFD they can review the annual certified audit provided as required by the TOSS contract, or I'm certain whether citizen or council member, either a member of the Board of Directors or the Chief, would be more than happy to arrange a meeting to go over the budget or any other matter of concern (252 261-2272 non-emergency number).

Will they be able to agree on a contract? What are the options? Will our tax rate be impacted? Will our insurance rates go up? Will TOSS take control of the SSVFD and form a town department?

I'm trying to sort this out and intend to present the options that I foresee, and to explore the potential answers to the those other questions as well..

You are welcome to return later for the “rest of the story”. I'll try not to take too long.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Synopsis of the TOSS Budget Workshop --- May 13, 2008

At this meeting the Council was presented with budget detailed spreadsheets and the Manager's “FY2008-09 Budget Message”. The following is the short version of the planned budget discussion:

Goal: A .09 tax rate (.0075 less than last year). With a total assessment of both real and personal property of $370,365 (from the Dare County Tax website) this tax rate would save me approximately$27.78. Or in simpler terms $7.50 per $100,000 in value.

Expenditures: Increased expenditures were noted in: salaries, benefits, cost-of-living increases, merit pay, fuel and insurance, despite the reduction in force of two permanent employee positions (replaced by temps). New with the presentation of this budget is Council Compensation totaling $18,600.

Revenue: Anticipated lose of revenue collection was noted in: Land Transfer Tax, Occupancy and local Sales taxes, Powell Bill money (for road repairs), and Building Permit fees. Of course the decrease in the property tax rate would also effect reduce both the revenue from that and the percentage of funding the town receives from the division of the Occupancy Tax collected by the county.

Undesignated Fund Balance: According to this plan, the Fund would remain at 75% (I assume 75% of the town's operating expense), and would not be used to balance this budget. Any growth would be transferred from the General fund to the Capital Reserve.

Reduction of Services: As previously established by town administration or council, the reduction in the number of recycling pickups in Winter, the elimination of the Chipping Program for the months June, July , and August, along with the modification of the Lifeguard/Ocean Rescue service, assist in making this budget balance.

Capital Improvements: None planned. $15,000 is included for the engineering studies required, but there is still yet no Capital Improvement Plan, therefore there are no street repairs or Storm Water mitigation projects scheduled or funded. Apparently two replacement squad cars for the Police Department had been considered, but removed from this budget plan.

Volunteer Fire Department: As a contracted agent for TOSS the VFD requested a budget of $341,600, noting the increase was due to: insurance costs (up 26.9%), fuel (up 14.3%), as well as, increases in Workers Compensation, Medical exams, State Pension contributions, member's benefits and awards (Volunteer Retention). Also, the hiring of the Departments first paid Fire Chief.

The Town Manager's recommendation was for no increase at all! This results in a budget of $291,400.

Compare this to our neighboring Fire Districts:

Town 07/08 08/09 (recommended by Town Manager)

Duck $427, 816 $517,500

Kitty Hawk $1,217490 (N/A at this time)

Conclusions: These are my thoughts and do not reflect the thoughts or opinions of anyone but myself.

The proposed budget appears to specifically reduce those services that directly benefit the individual taxpayers while increasing the Administrative and Operational costs of Town Hall. Don't mistake what I am saying. I think our Town employees are doing an outstanding job and have and deserve every benefit they receive. And, as exhibited by the turnover rate of the last couple of years, the Town must be competitive to retain good employees.

I would just rather have the Town keep my $27.78 and restore the services I used to have and fully fund the SSVFD (even if that means a modest tax increase).

Further: The audience at this workshop only consisted of myself, two other citizens, and the Fire Chief. The session was recessed until the May 27 Council Meeting (8:00 AM) and will be resumed at the end of that meeting. If you have and concerns about any of the above, you will want to attend.

This budget is still a work-in-progress and may be altered considerably. I believe Mayor Smith would like to present a budget that is further reduced in order to affect an .08 per $100 tax rate. While Council member Hess would like to consider a budget representing the current .0975 rate.

A full copy of the budget message can be found here.

There was considerably more discussion regarding the SSVFD at the meeting which I will cover further after I've had more time to sort out my thoughts.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

First – Apologies (Excuses)

Well, it sure has been a dry spell since my last February post. But, politically, nothing much has happened until recently (I'll be commenting on these issues in subsequent posts). Among things that have interrupted my blogging: my laptop decided to vacation in California for a couple of weeks while being rebuilt due to hardware failure, family considerations, major work projects (seemingly endless), and trying to be more attentive to my fire department obligations.

I did miss one TOSS Council meeting due to illness, but was advised by others that nothing notable was discussed.

Other than the Resolution Declaring English as the Official Language of Southern Shores, council had not really produced much.

More to follow, shortly....................................I promise!