By LEAH STRATMANN
Emotions were running high after former executive assistant Diane Brown addressed the board of the South Walton Fire District (SWFD) at the monthly meeting. She said, “In February 2011, the fire chief brought cost saving measures before the board. To date, none of these measures have been implemented; yet the positions of two long term, extremely dedicated employees were eliminated, myself and former deputy chief Sean Hughes. My question to the board is this: With all the options available to reduce cost to this fire district, why were these layoffs the first and only measures taken?”
Brown also passed out copies of a brochure entitled, “Weathering the Economic Storm—Fiscal Challenges in Fire and Emergency Medical Services,” developed by a task force for the international association of fire chiefs. She noted each SWFD staff member was required to read this document prior to strategic planning meetings in March. “Primarily noted in this guide as a pitfall to be avoided is the firing of support or office staff as an immediate reaction to proposed staff reductions,” she said. Brown is both a resident and a taxpayer in south Walton.
Among the measures presented in February to reduce cost without reducing personnel were to reduce salaries from 5 to 15 percent, selling off two parcels of land owned by the district, changing the health insurance plan to include participation in payment by staff members, reducing or eliminating the stipends paid to the commissioners, using more reserve funds and increasing the millage rate to 1.0.
Others had comments on the layoffs as well. Mark Youngblood, who is chairman of SWFD’s firefighters retirement system pension board felt the layoffs were unjust. He said, “Being a fire service member for as long as I have, there is a bond between the community and the firefighters. Sean Hughes has been a tireless and staunch employee, but we let him go without warning. I’m puzzled, troubled and upset. I cannot believe we would treat one of our family members this way and kick him to the road. Since he has been deputy chief, it is his face the community sees. From a firefighter’s perspective, I think I speak for the entire department when I say this crushed our morale. He’s the staunchest supporter of management and I don’t see how we can put him on the road. I am begging this board to stop this from happening and at least put Chief Hughes on some kind of leave.”
Henry Apfelbach, president of the firefighters union said, “This made me sick to my stomach. The people in this department know the difference between right and wrong. I think you owe it to the public to discuss why these positions were cut.”
The board pointed out there will be no discussion until legal counsel is sought. Legal counsel will, of course, be another cost to the district.
In other business, Don Riley submitted his name to the board for the open position on the pension board of trustees’ vacancy. A motion was made and approved to accept Riley as a board member.
Bryan Flanagan, fiscal officer, reported on mid-year budget adjustments. “We are meeting our budget so far this year and should be able to stay within the budget we have set. I would ask that we use the compensated leave reserve funds to cover the amount being paid out this year.” A motion was made and passed to use the $115,000 leave reserve funds.