They didn’t shoot the messenger, but there were some itchy trigger fingers.
Whitehall Village Trustee Kenneth Bartholomew reported on several findings concerning the quest to consolidate the two local fire companies during the Sept. 14 village board meeting, starting with the fact that the village board was, by law, the governing body over both the Whitehall and Skenesborough volunteer fire companies.
“I learned a lot, but it is a lot of stuff that people really don’t want to know,” said Bartholomew. “Any fire department that serves a village is under the direction of that village.”
Bartholomew added that the law also stated that the members of the fire departments were considered village employees.
“All village firemen are considered unpaid village employees of the village of Whitehall,” Bartholomew said. “This means that they are eligible for insurance through the village, and they could go through our insurance if they wanted to. But the main point was that the village has control.”
Bartholomew attended the Conference of Mayors last month, where the information that he brought back to the board was given by John Gallagan, New York Conference of Mayors employee relations specialist.
Whitehall VFC Chief Bryan Brooks asked what the new findings would accomplish.
“I understand that you are trying to follow the laws,” said Brooks, “but what is that accomplishing other than getting some people mad?”
“I’m just the messenger here, but what it is accomplishing is just that; we need to follow the law,” said Bartholomew. “There are two ways that the fire departments are controlled – one way is through the fire commissioners and the other way is a fire council. As of right now, the village board acts as the fire commissioners.”
Bartholomew added that under the findings, the village would have to officially recognize any and all current and new firefighters in either department.
“If we have not approved your membership, then you do not have any members,” said Bartholomew.
“I have been a member here for 30 years,” said Brian Brooks of the Whitehall VFC. “Does this mean that I am no longer a member?”
“All it means is that we have to officially approve your roster,” said Bartholomew, a move that the village made later in the meeting.
Brian Brooks also said he was concerned about adding more time for new members to become official.
“It’s a long enough process now with the background check and everything that they have to go through, and now they would have to wait until the board approved them,” he said.
“If you bring a name to us, we are going to most likely approve it,” said Bartholomew. “You are the ones that are performing the checks and letting us know that the guy is legit. What this really becomes is more paperwork on our part.”
Another debate topic that was addressed was who would be in control of the purse strings and financing for equipment.
“If your going to come in here and micro-manage the fire departments, that’s fine,” said Brian Brooks. “But we need the money to get what we need. We have kids that are out there in 20-year old equipment when the guidelines say that you should get rid of them after 10.”
“I don’t want to micro-manage your offices,” said Trustee Walter Sandford. “Everyone here is supportive of the fire companies. We just want to make sure that everything is being done within the law.”
“If we are your employees, then as our employer you are responsible under OSHA law to provide us with proper equipment and training,” said Brian Brooks. “That’s the law, too.”
“You buy your own equipment, not us,” said Bartholomew.
“We need help from the village and if someone gets hurt out there, then it is going to fall back on the employer and that is you,” responded Brian Brooks.
“We do not have any money,” said Mayor Francis “Fra” Putorti.
“Neither do we,” said Brian Brooks.
Skenesborough VFC member Jeff Benjamin said he wanted to be at the meeting to hear exactly what the laws were.
“This law is basically a formality,” said Benjamin. “I just wanted to be here so I could get some information and see where we are going from there.”
“This is not new,” said Putorti. “This is something that we have known about. We’re just trying to get everything set up now.”
“I was not trying to start any trouble with this,” said Bartholomew. “What we want to do is make sure that we get us under the law. That’s it.”