Heated budget controversy jeopardizes fire department.

February 28, 2017
walkerville FD budget - 1

Elbridge Township Clerk Stephanie VanSickle addresses the crowd during the Walkerville Area Joint Fire and Rescue Authority meeting.

Heated budget controversy jeopardizes fire department.

#OceanaCountyNews #WalkervilleFireAndRescue

By Allison Scarbrough. Editor.

ELBRIDGE TOWNSHIP — A meeting of the Walkerville Area Joint Fire and Rescue Authority sparked by a budget controversy drew at least 70 people to the Elbridge Township Hall last Wednesday evening, Feb. 22.

walkerville FD budget - 2There were so many citizens in attendance, that the meeting took place in the gymnasium of the township hall, which is the former Elbridge Elementary School.

Tempers flared as accusations of embezzlement, Open Meetings Act violations, and conflicts of interest were cast throughout the two-hour meeting.

“We’ve heard (Walkerville Fire and Rescue) is running out of money and threatening to shut down,” said one citizen.

“The fire authority is a separate unit of government that runs the fire walkerville FD budget - 3department,” said Okemos, Michigan attorney William Fahey, whose firm was hired by the townships involved. The fire department is “ultimately answerable to the incorporating units, and each of the incorporating units are answerable to you (the citizens).”

The authority’s four incorporating units include: Leavitt, Colfax and Elbridge townships and Walkerville Village. Members of each board of the incorporating units were present at the meeting.

walkerville FD budget - 4Oceana County Undersheriff Ryan Schiller and Lt. Shane Hasty attended the meeting in full uniform, apparently on standby in case the meeting turned violent.

No physical confrontations took place, but yelling, finger pointing and some profanity did occur.

The budget battle with the townships and the village is putting the fire department in jeopardy of continuing service to its residents.

A fire board meeting the following evening, Feb. 23, resulted in township and village representatives agreeing to take the proposed budget back to their respective boards for approval, said fire department Administrator Jerry Frick.

Frick, who has been the target of many accusations regarding the walkerville FD budget - 5budget, said he is not confident the individual boards will accept the proposed budget.

The clock is ticking for a budget to be approved by the end of March, Frick said. If a budget is not approved by March 31, the fire officials will not be able to write any checks. If checks cannot be written, fire trucks cannot be filled with fuel or repaired. The fire department could shut down.

“There are insufficient funds to pay the bills that are due in March,” said Walkerville Fire Chief Greg Frick, who is Jerry’s son.

Jerry Frick had served as Walkerville’s chief for over 35 years, and walkerville FD budget - 6Greg took over as chief in the year 2000.

“We’re coming here getting blindsided and slapped on the side of the head,” Jerry said at the meeting.

Fahey, the townships’ attorney, said it’s unnecessary to have both an administrator and a chief. “You’re paying two people to do one job,” he said.

Jerry Frick said his yearly salary is $7,000, and Greg Frick’s is $3,000.

A few of the officials at the meeting said they were interviewed by local police, inquiring about embezzlement accusations.

walkerville FD budget - 7“Someone called without having the information, and a Michigan State Police detective came to my house,” one official said. “They filed the report on hearsay. This is just one of many rumors going around that are unfounded – rumors of embezzlement. Those kinds of things have brought us to this point.”

One source of contention is a washer and dryer ordered for the firefighters’ turnout gear. A “misappropriation of funds” to purchase the washer and dryer was cited at the meeting. Jerry Frick said he was able to secure a grant for $18,500 to pay for the equipment. The local contribution for that purchase is $882, he said.

Larry VanSickle of Elbridge Township said he feels that an earlier meeting that took place at an official’s home was a violation of the walkerville FD budget - 8Open Meetings Act because it included “discussion that led to a decision,” describing the officials’ actions as “reckless.”

Several citizens spoke out, citing the personal issues among the board members, yet crediting the fire department for its service.

“This is out of control,” said firefighter Leonard Amador. “This fire department is going to fall apart.” Amador said after the meeting that he thinks Jerry Frick is being unfairly targeted. “Jerry Frick has well over 50 years on this department. The department wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for the people we have.”

Amador said the firefighters were told to the come to the meeting that is in question of OMA violations. “They lied to our faces,” he said.walkerville FD budget - 9

“There is a lot of problem with emotion,” a citizen said.

Copies of a three-page document entitled, “Necessary Changes to Walkerville Area Joint Fire Authority Agreement and Budget” were distributed at the meeting. The document was drafted by Fahey’s law firm in representation of the three townships.

“These amendments are intended to allow the incorporating units to unite behind providing high-quality fire protection to all four incorporating units in an efficient and cost-effective manner. These amendments are also intended to help facilitate fuller and more transparent communication among the incorporating units and between incorporating units and the joint fire board.”

A call to Fahey’s office Tuesday for further explanation was not immediately returned.

The future of the fire department lies in the hands of the fire authority board, which must approve a budget by the end of March. Members of the board include two members of each incorporating unit. The board includes: Elbridge Township representatives Mike VanAgtmael and Bill Evans; Leavitt Township representatives Wayne Tanner and Greg Dornebush; Colfax Township representatives Diane Wade and Larry Burmeister; and Walkerville Village representatives Jim Yancey and Barb Yancey.

The department covers a 130-square-mile area, said Jerry Frick. If the fire authority board cannot reach a decision on its budget, people in that geographical area could be without fire protection.

“The people we serve are in jeopardy,” Frick said.

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