MCLENDON-CHISHOLM, TX, DECEMBER 12, 2017 — Tonight, the McLendon-Chisholm [M-C] City Council ratified a contract for fire service with the McLendon-Chisholm Volunteer Fire Department [MCVFD] that adopts the third of three non-negotiable options presented by Fire Chief Robert Jones after reneging on face-to-face negotiations in October. Presented as an ultimatum, the three choices were to either (1) continue with the current funding, (2) increase funding to add Sunday 7am-7pm for the station to be manned, or (3) return to an all-volunteer fire service.
A Gun To the City’s Head
Speaking in support of his motion, which passed by a four to one vote to accept option (3) and return to an all-volunteer service, Council Member Scott Turnbull stated, “For the last three years the City Council has had to deal with the MCVFD demanding their budget request be funded, under the less than subtle threat of ‘the guys going away and leaving the City without a fire department.’”
Council Member Jim Herren affirmed Turnbull’s assessment stating that “the three fire service options we were presented with felt a lot like extortion.”
MCVFD: Sole Custodian of Fire District
Mayor Robert Steinhagen pointed out that the MCVFD is the sole custodian of Fire District 22 citing state law, which establishes no requirement for Rockwall County or the City of M-C to provide or fund fire service protection. “Though they have co-opted our City’s name, the MCVFD is a privately-governed and operated organization,” said Steinhagen, “which has embraced one hundred percent of the responsibility as the primary fire service provider to the fire district.”
The MCVFD also receives a significant amount of grant funding from the State to supplement the cost of training and equipment, all of which is approved to serve the entire fire district, without distinction to city/unincorporated area boundaries.
Herren also noted that “Seventy-two percent of all fire departments within the state of Texas are all-volunteer, few of which receive any city or county funding, especially those, like ours, with populations of less than 5,000.” (M-C’s estimated population is less than 2,500)
M-C is offering to continue to contract with and provide funding to the MCVFD but at a reduced rate and with standards of accountability, where before there were none. Steinhagen added, “Whether the MCVFD accepts City funding or not does not relieve them of their responsibility to provide fire protection services to our fire district.”
MCVFD Contract; One of Many Under Review
As part of an overall review process set out by the Mayor in his June 27 State of the City Address, the M-C City Council has been reviewing all contracts and meeting with service providers. “The Council has renegotiated several contracts,” stated Steinhagen, “that have cut costs to the City, increased revenue significantly, and improved ‘customer service’ for our citizens. This has made it possible for us to take a significant chunk out of our city hall building debt to save taxpayers more than three hundred thousand as well as cutting the tax rate to a flat 0.15 cents,” he added.
All-Volunteer vs. Career Fire Departments
Council Member Turnbull focused on the cumulative data gathered by Council Members and City staff that challenges the legitimacy of a career fire department for cities with populations, like M-C, under 2,600.
Adding support for Turnbull’s argument, Mayor Steinhagen referenced neighboring cities of Rockwall and Royse City [RC] with populations of approximately 43,000 & 12,600, respectively, noting, “Rockwall only started paying some of their firefighters a few years ago and RC continues as an all-volunteer department whose 2017 budget mirrored that of the MCVFD.”
Plans are underway in RC to transition into a Hybrid department (part full-time and part volunteer) that is similar to Rockwall’s, as they grow closer to fifteen thousand in population, which may happen in two or three years, but only after more infrastructure is in place along with a possible tax-hike for a bond to pay for all of it.
Steinhagen added, “We would never have considered the comparison to RC, which has a truly outstanding all-volunteer fire department that serves a city six-times the size of M-C, had the Fire Chief not done so during his October 10 presentation (view video below) in an attempt to convince the City Council that we are falling short of the standards of other cities. However, he clearly didn’t take a close enough look at the fact that fire department funding was essentially equal.” concluded Steinhagen.
“I’ve said all along that I think we’ve been paying too much for this service,” said Council Member Sim Woodham. “I just can’t reconcile why funding has increased from $23,000 to $320,650 in just four years, which amounts to 25% of our city’s budget,” he said.
An Alternative Point of View
Mayor Pro Tem Wayne Orchard was the sole opposition to Turnbull’s motion, preferring instead an “enhanced services” contract where the station would be manned 12 hours a day with two firefighters.
As the designated liaison between the Council and the MCVFD, Orchard also proposed elevating qualification standards for the paid firefighters that would staff the station, which at a minimum would have required certifications in both (1) the “Basic Certification Level” from the Texas Commission on Fire Protection [TCFP] and (2) either (a.) an Emergency Medical Technician [EMT] or (b.) paramedic, standards which were not included in the MCVFD’s contract proposal.
Though unsuccessful in getting the MCVFD leadership to the negotiating table, Orchard advocated for terms that would have effectively funded the fire chief’s salary and allowed four of the volunteers to continue on as full-time paid firefighters. “This would make it possible for the station to be manned from 7 am to 7 pm,” said Orchard, “when it’s most difficult to schedule volunteers since most have jobs that require them to be out of the fire district during those hours.”
However, Council Member Adrienne Balkum takes issue with how the determination was made to pay firefighters, especially on weekends contending that at least two volunteers would naturally be in-district during those times. “I was taken aback when I learned from the fire chief how little has been done to recruit volunteers,” Balkum said, “and their fixation on creating a 24/7 fire department staffed with salaried personnel with full benefits.”
Echoing her concern, Herren asserted that other all-volunteer departments are obviously able to find people who can remain in-district during times when the MCVFD is paying firefighters to man the station. “To me, it’s a question of leadership,” said Herren. “RC’s fire department is successful in attracting excellent volunteers between 7 am and 7 pm because they have a fire chief who is a leader that people want to follow, which is the kind of leader we will strive to hire for our City-owned FD,” he concluded.
Decision Made in Haste
Steinhagen asserts that little forethought went into the 2014 decision to launch into the deep waters of a paid fire department. Back then the Council was trying to solve the challenges that the new fire chief, Robert Jones, said he was having recruiting volunteers. “Just four years ago,” says Steinhagen, “the sure-fire solution to overcoming the lack volunteers was to pay them. Now, it’s ‘if they just had benefits then all our staffing problems would be solved,'” he added. (View Video)
Building a Fire Department for City’s Future
While no time or attention was paid to have an objective assessment of the current and future needs for City fire protection, the Council embraced the fire chief’s “solution;” a six-year timeline of substantial funding increases to the to transition the MCVFD into the City, which goes to build the fire department.
Turnbull noted that “since 2014, all [City] funding to the MCVFD has been based on the premise of their 6-year timeline culminating in the transition of the MCVFD personnel to City employees and ownership of MCVFD assets to the City.”
“In essence,” says Mayor Steinhagen, “City leaders did have the best interest of citizens in mind when they acted on this since they clearly believed that they were investing in the City’s future.”
Pulling the Rug Out from Under M-C Taxpayers
However that all changed last month when Chief Jones announced that the eleven-member MCVFD had voted both to suspend their 6-year timeline and rescind plans to transition into the City.
“This arbitrary action,” said Turnbull, “has rendered useless any basis the City [Council] had for justifying funding the MCVFD’s 2018 budget request.”
Game Changer #1
While the MCVFD’s sudden decision to withdraw from their commitment to integrating into the City was a monumental turning point for contract considerations, Mayor Steinhagen highlights two prior events over the last two months that he describes as “game changers,” which prompted added scrutiny by the Council.
The first occurred on October 1 when the new contract with the Rockwall County EMS [RC-EMS] (ambulance service) went into effect, which drastically improves the guaranteed maximum response time for critical “Priority 1” calls from 10:59 minutes to 7:59.
Steinhagen noted that “before the new RC-EMS contract went into effect the MCVFD’s response to critical medical emergency calls inside the city was typically better, which had been a significant benefit to M-C citizens, especially since medical related calls amounts to 53% of their activity,” adding that “fires account for just nine percent.”
However, the MCVFD’s proposed 2018 contract stipulates a 9:30 maximum response rate, which Steinhagen added, “includes no means of enforceability and no qualification standards for the firefighters beyond basic first aid.
Essentially,” Steinhagen continued, “if we were to sign the MCVFD’s proposed contract we would be paying to guarantee that a minute and a half after paramedics are on the scene, two firefighters with basic first aid skills would arrive to assist. There is no justification to continue with the same contract when the overwhelming majority of medical calls are being handled more effectively and efficiently by RC-EMS,” Steinhagen said.
In light of RC-EMS’s new response standards, Council Member Herren presented the Council with research of local, state and national data, which ultimately questions the legitimacy of the MCVFD’s growth strategy, where the cost per call has skyrocketed to an average of $1,600. “I question the wisdom of the MCVFD trying to tackle non-emergency related calls in a city our size,” said Herren.
During the October 10 city council meeting, the fire chief presented a breakdown of calls revealing that 77% of the MCVFD’s calls are categorized as either “rescue EMS” (few of which are priority 1 level emergencies), “general service” or “good intent.” (View Video)
Failure By Design
Council Member Balkum views the requirement-mindset that has resulted in the MCVFD’s push for career firefighters as the product of “necessity by design.” “When I look at the number of calls that the MCVFD is trying to answer that are not real emergencies,” says Balkum, “like vehicle lock-outs and minor vehicle accidents, which accounts for a large portion of their call volume, it becomes apparent that they are more of a compensated public service contractor than an emergency services squad.” She adds, “The only people who could possibly volunteer would be those who don’t have another job or retirees. It’s a system that’s designed to push volunteers away,” Balkum concludes.
“I agree with Council Member Balkum, says Woodham. “If the MCVFD were to focus on true emergency calls then more citizens might volunteer to join their team,” he argues, “including off-duty full-time professional firefighters that typically work one-day-on and two-days-off shifts. I suspect that most professional firefighters would be more than willing to respond to true emergencies here in our community like a house fire or heart attack, for instance, which are few and far between but when they are needed most.” Woodham added, “Why we haven’t been doing that already is frustrating to me and is partly why I feel that the current vision of the MCVFD leadership is fundamentally flawed.”
Game Changer #2
The second “game changer” occurred last month when the Rockwall County Commissioners Court accommodated the fire chief’s request to cease contracting with the City and instead contract directly with the MCVFD.
While it was recently affirmed that the City’s sole legal responsibility is restricted to within the municipality and the County is not prohibited from contracting directly with the MCVFD, Steinhagen stipulated that “the action by the County Commissioners has effectively released the City of any sense of obligation to help support our neighbors in the unincorporated area.”
Integrate MCVFD Funding from Unincorporated Area; A Non-Starter
Since 2016, Steinhagen had been advocating for the MCVFD to find ways for those in the unincorporated area of the fire district to begin contributing to their own fire safety, where currently they contribute nothing, since the City’s contribution accounts for 83% of their budget and the funds paid to supplement the remaining 17% comes from sales taxes collected in the unincorporated areas of the County.
For the city to adopt a contract for “Enhanced Fire Services,” the Council provided to the Fire Chief (during the November 14 meeting where he spoke from the podium in a back-and-forth interaction with the Council where he presented the MCVFD’s “non-negotiables”) a non-negotiable term that the MCVFD would have to include some kind of plan that would integrate funding from those who live in the unincorporated area. ( VIEW the MCVFD proposal, which includes no such provision)
Citing concern about the inevitability expressed by at least two County Commissioners that the current annual subsidy granted by them will be repurposed to other areas of public safety that will benefit a greater number of citizens throughout the county, Steinhagen has pressed for the MCVFD to be proactive and creative in helping to ensure that funding for the public safety of those in the unincorporated area would not be at risk when that day comes.
MCVFD’s Government Funding Mindset
In June of 2016, Steinhagen, who consults not-for-profit organizations for a living, proposed a fundraising program for the MCVFD that has provided other cities with long-term and sustainable income. In addition to his time and expertise, he offered to give $10,000 to cover administrative costs to start and maintain the program.
Steinhagen said that “instead of offering the MCVFD a proverbial fish to eat for a day, as with all my clients I was hoping to equip them to catch enough proverbial fish to help feed them for a lifetime. They never followed-up with me on my offer,” he continued, adding that, “the first time that any discussion regarding their funding came up again was this past June when the MCVFD leadership submitted their 2018 funding request to the Council.”
Rejected Without Even Seeing It
Additionally, before it had been delivered to them last month, the fire Chief announced that the MCVFD members had rejected the Mayor’s, Council-supported contract proposal that, with the exception of mutual aid calls, would have required the MCVFD to bill those outside the city for emergency services calls, just as the RC- EMS does. “Our proposal, which [Chief] Jones said he was open to discussing when he met with us in early October, would have solved the inequity in funding and bolstered the department,” said Steinhagen. (View Video)
As a civil servant in another city, Council Member Woodham takes issue with the pushback he’s witnessed by the MCVFD’s leadership. “Though he’s never been a full-time firefighter and, until four years ago, never run a fire department, the chief accused us of micro-managing when we questioned some of his decisions,” said Woodham.
Citing concern for the safety of firefighters that are under Jones’ command, Steinhagen has also revealed that the Council has been unable to authenticate the Chief’s credentials.
During the October 10 meeting, the Council was informed that [Lieutenant Herman Larkin] was the only non-probationary member of the MCVFD that is not certified under the Texas Commission on Fire Prevention [TCFP] (View Video Below). However, a search of the online TCFP database for certifications held by Fire Chief Robert Jones came up empty; the only certifications for the fire chief that can be verified are “Fire Fighter I & II, Driver/Operator, & Wildland Fire Fighting,” with the State Firefighters and Fire Marshall’s Association [SFFMA], which are not the equivalent of but a qualification to test for basic level TCFP certification, and an Emergency Care Attendant [ECA] certification by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
There is also no evidence that the Fire Chief holds any of SFFMA certifications for Fire Officer I, II, III, or IV.
“In light of these facts, I think that it’s reasonable for us to ask if Mr. Jones is truly qualified to lead anyone into a fire,” says Steinhagen, “and find out why, as a ‘part-time’ fire chief, Mr. Jones is paid double what the former full-time fire chief was paid?”
M-C Proposed Funding Rate Follows Negotiated Rate with County
Steinhagen further stipulates that when the MCVFD members agreed to the terms of the contract with the Commissioners to cover the unincorporated area of the fire district, which makes up two-thirds of the land mass, more than half its population and has accounted for well over half of MCVFD’s call volume, the true cost of fire service in the fire district was reestablished.
The Definition of Insanity
At the conclusion of tonight’s meeting, Mayor Steinhagen stated:
Those who made the decision to dive headfirst into monumental funding increases to the fire service contractor did so without the feedback, contribution, knowledge or consent of the taxpayers that were to become obligated to it. It’s consistent with the many other actions that they took, including putting the people into debt for $2.125 million to build a 5,000sqft city hall building without the knowledge or consent of the people.
The real problem back then was the big-government, top-down mindset of the former Mayor and the narrow majority that made up the City Council where the solution to every challenge was always a matter of more taxpayer funding. If you’re a hammer then everything you see is a nail, and if your a liberal then every problem you see can be solved with more government funding, which is why they proposed a 330% budget increase and a 228% tax hike that motivated me to lead the successful tax-rollback referendum that catapulted me into office.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
During tonight’s City Council meeting, some of the very same people that got us into this mess and their supporters have come back to advocate for us to turn a deaf ear to the facts and continue increased and unobstructed taxpayer funding to the MCVFD. In essence, they wanted us to double down on their bad decisions.
- Though the MCVFD refused to sit down and negotiate terms in favor of a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, they say, “sign the MCVFD’s proposed contract.”
- Despite the fact that well over half of the services the MCVFD has provided are EMS related and the fact that two months ago the Rockwall County EMS now guarantees a far better response time than MCVFD can, they say, “stay with the current contract!”
- Even though the expressed purpose of funding the MCVFD was to provide equipment and manpower that would become city-owned after six years was ripped away from citizens last month, they say, “keep funding them!”
- While my offer of time, talent, and treasure to help the MCVFD raise funds was rebuffed, they say, “let M-C taxpayers keep footing the bill.”
- When the MCVFD rejected my proposal without even seeing it that calls for billing those in the unincorporated area of the fire district who receive service, just like Rockwall County EMS does, they called it “heartless,” even “unAmerican.”
- Now that the City has been removed from any perceived obligation as a “good neighbor” to the unincorporated area, they say, “keep obligating city taxpayers to support those who contribute nothing for their fire service protection!”
- As other cities six times the size of ours continues to have high performing all-volunteer fire departments, they say, “we just have to keep paying for full-time firefighters.”
- In the face of overwhelming evidence that no time and attention was paid to ensure that the decision to jump head-first into monumental funding increases was the right path to take, they say, “how dare you to question our decisions and don’t monkey with the contract!”
Our saving grace is that this problem is still fixable and we have a Council with the resolve to stand-up to the ousted political ruling class that, as we witnessed tonight, has reorganized in hopes of thwarting our efforts to bring fiscal responsibility and creative bottom-up solutions to our community.
We will act deliberately to ensure that the actions we take to establish and create a city-governed and accountable fire department is grounded on a strategic plan that meets the needs of our citizens now and in the future.
NEXT STEPS: Planning for A City-Owned Fire Department
Speaking in support of his motion, which the City would guarantee quarterly payments of $8,437.50 for thirty-three months, Council Member Turnbull proposed setting aside the remainder of the City’s budgeted allocation for fire safety, which he calculates as $813,450 over the life of the contract, to either fund a city-governed fire department, pay down the city hall building debt, or both.
Since October, Council Member Balkum has been leading the Council to evaluate the fire-safety needs of the City by consulting with fire safety experts in planning and developing a city governed fire department. She has also opened an opportunity for citizens to be part of a committee to help advise the Council through the process of next steps.
Our Future Leader of a City Governed Fire Department
While qualifications and experience will be first on his list, Mayor Steinhagen is hoping to hire a City Fire Chief who has the passion and skill set to attract, recruit and train young men and women that are looking to someday be career firefighters, but need some training and experience to be taken more seriously by large city departments. Referring to his State of the City Address, Steinhagen says, “I laid out a vision for the MCVFD to become the natural place for cities like Dallas & Ft. Worth to point up-and-coming prospects that could benefit from time here, which can help them to be taken more seriously and move up on massive waiting lists because of the training they receive and for the public service they do for our community and with the right leader at the helm, that can become a reality.”
Steinhagen also expects a new fire chief to be driven to equip citizens where the mindset of the community in times of emergencies is not solely focused on first-responders, but on one another. “Next year we will begin holding free CPR classes for our citizens,” says Steinhagen. “I am also advocating the canvassing of our neighborhoods and rural homesteads to educate and remind citizens about the importance of having and regularly checking working smoke detectors since, according to the National Fire Safety Association, they have saved more lives than all the fire departments in the US combined,” he added.
Mutual Aid is Still In Effect
During this morning’s regular meeting, the County Commissioners reaffirmed that the mutual aid agreement, signed in 2011 between Rockwall County, the cities of Rockwall, Heath, Royse City, Fate, McLendon-Chisholm, Rowlett and also the MCVFD, remains in full effect. Since the MCVFD continues to serve the entire fire district, mutual aid will continue to be truly mutual between cities.
No Impact on Insurance Rating
Despite desperate assertions to the contrary, Council Member Herren highlighted that the city’s current ISO rating of 4, which can help lower some homeowner insurance rates, should not be impacted since the rating was achieved four years ago when the department was still all-volunteer.
UPDATE: The signed contract by the Mayor was hand-delivered on Wednesday, December 13, 2017, at 9:50 am to the MCVFD (received by Lieutenant Herman Larkin) for review and acceptance.
UPDATE: Acknowledgement of the MCVFD’s receipt of the contract was received by the Mayor on December 15, 2017, at 4:13 pm.