New chief resigns, department faces complaints and budget problems
The question for Providence firefighters is no longer who will be chief, but what kind of organization will be left at the end of the year to lead.
Four months into the new fiscal year, the department already faces a projected $60,000 budget shortfall for 2010-11. Additionally, Chief Andrew Ansley resigned Oct. 17, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are investigating complaints against the department.
“I’d love to say it was business as usual, but we’re a mess and I don’t know how to fix it,” a four-year member of the department, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “I’ve never seen a company in the red like this. We’ve got to find money.”
Blame part of the problem on the loss of membership. When the Providence Board of Directors voted Aug. 15 to replace then Chief David Banick with Ansley, eight volunteers turned in their gear and walked out. The department has historically depended on volunteers to staff its night shift, working in three-man rotations. With at least four of those eight positions still unfilled, the board started rotating the paid firefighters from the daytime shift into one of those positions each night.
That’s cost the department an extra $160 per night, or $4,800 for 30 days.
To avoid going deeper in debt, the board discussed other options at its October meeting. The department currently has three certificates of deposit in the bank, worth $400,000. Board members considered cashing in one of those CDs or taking out a loan against one of them. The board asked member Steve Carow to research the options and report back to the board in November.
“It’s tough times,” Board of Directors member Lori Elliot said. She didn’t have an opinion about the best option, but said the department must find a way to pay its people.
Last year, Providence faced an $84,000 shortfall between the department’s fire-fees, which were $50 per single-family home at the time, and its expenses.
Even after Union County increased fees for homes in the Providence district to $82.75 for the 2010-11 fiscal year, Providence came up $58,114 short of its $517,367 budget. Union officials had to cover the shortfall using the county’s general fund.
“Nothing has changed [from last year],” Elliot said. “This isn’t going to get better until we make changes.”
In September, Elliot went to the Weddington town council and presented a proposal, suggesting the town absorb the fire department and take control. Her proposal calls for redrawing district lines, expanding to 80 percent of Weddington and taking some territory from Wesley Chapel’s department.
Elliot also proposed switching to a fire tax, with options of 2/10 or 4/10 of a cent. Either option would eliminate the shortfall, according to current data. Four-tenths of a cent would generate $593,700, giving the department breathing room.
“I can see the writing on the wall,” Elliot said. “If we don’t do something, this is only going to get worse.”
Chief resigns, complaints filed
At the same time, the department board continues searching for a new chief. Ansley notified board members via e-mail he was resigning Sunday, Oct. 17. In the e-mail, Ansley said he was resigning for personal reasons.
“I have made many life-long friendships at Providence and will continue to foster those in the coming years,” Ansley, who has served the department for 21 years, wrote. “I challenge each of you to put in 20-plus years. It has been a very rewarding experience that no other occupation or hobby can provide.”
Ansley’s resignation takes effect Nov. 1 and follows the September resignation of board President Rob Kinniburgh, who has yet to be replaced. Deputy Chief Daryl Matthews is currently the highest ranking officer, while board Vice Chair Steve Cloutier serves as acting president until a new election is held. The board has set no timeline for filling either position.
The new chief will have several challenges to face, including addressing complaints filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Four complaints were filed, and federal officials already have dismissed two. The remaining EEOC accusation involves charges of discrimination made by firefighter Bill Schmidt, who declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
In the complaints, Schmidt alleges Ansley, during phone conversations, questioned his health and ability to serve. The complaint says Ansley questioned Schmidt as he was undergoing tests for skin cancer and after Schmidt asked for 60 days off if surgery was needed. Instead, the complaint alleges, Ansley suggested Schmidt retire from active duty.
Ansley did not return calls for comment from Union County Weekly.
Meanwhile Union County Weekly has obtained copies of the remaining OSHA complaint, raising questions about the status of the department’s gear and equipment.
Each firefighter is required to have the correct paperwork, certifying they have the correct size respirator to use when running into a burning building. The equipment comes in small, medium and large sizes, and 11 firefighters didn’t have their proper paperwork, showing they had a respirator that fit.
Other firefighters have questioned why their concerns, outlined in a letter written after the Aug. 15 vote for a new chief, haven’t been addressed. In the letter, department volunteers asked why Chief Banick had been removed and how Kinniburgh and board members Steve Cloutier and Dan Warren could serve since they do not live in the district.
Board members never dealt with the questions, the volunteers say. Instead, multiple members were told they could work out the remaining schedule for October, but have not received a schedule for November.
“We’re all in limbo,” one volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “I never quit, I never turned in my gear, (but) right now, we’re still waiting to get our schedule for November.”