Concerns expressed about fire district decision

By Connie Parish
Leavenworth Times – July 9, 2018

To say that many Lansing, Delaware and High Prairie residents are unhappy about the city of Lansing’s recent decision to withdraw from Fire District 1 is probably an understatement.

And many were motivated to express that anger and resentment in what Mayor Mike Smith acknowledged was an “emotional issue.” Enough to fill the council chambers at Thursday night’s meeting with standing room only. In fact, city officials brought out extra chairs so some gathered around the wall in back could be seated.

After a 15-minute executive session last week, the council voted unanimously to authorize an agreement to the entities involved, but did not disclose that the agreement called for withdrawing from the fire district in 18 months — the end of 2019. Police Chief Steve Wayman was asked to hand-deliver the agreement to the entities the next day. After receiving his letter, Fire Chief Rick Huhn provided a copy to the Leavenworth Times, expressing anger about the decision and how it was handled.

That was the message delivered Thursday by Huhn, the chairman of the fire board and a number of representatives of the two townships as well as some Lansing and county residents. Their message was loud and clear.

Jeff Klemp, representing the fire board, said he found it “offensive and inaccurate” to read in a story and the city’s news release on Saturday that the move was necessary to “reduce bureaucracy” and provide more efficiencies.

He said he found it “disappointing” that city council members did not appreciate the “selfless service” and efforts to use their assets in a frugal and economic manner. The fire district asked voters to decide whether the fire district could levy more than 9 mills to provide financing, and the voters opted to limit the levy to that, Klemp reminded the council.

He also pointed out the fire district was able to negotiate with the state about donating the land where the fire district’s first station is located, near Lansing Correctional Facility. He praised Huhn’s “selfless service” and 42 years of firefighting experience and mentioned that the new assistant chief, who was to take over after Huhn’s impending retirement, “is a fantastic fit” to head the staff, which includes 11 full-time and 11 volunteer firefighters. The $1.2 million budget “provides great value for the citizens,” he noted, adding that the city provides 65 percent of the budget but gets 75 percent of the services.

“You’ve already voted to pull out,” Huhn said, but he thought there should have been “open public meetings” with each entity to discuss the options, which could have included improved communication and/or amended interlocal agreements.

Another fire board member, Marcus Majure of Lansing, said he “took it personal” when in interviews and in the news release a complaint was lodged against a “bureaucratic system.”

Majure said the council mentioned a committee that had been studying the issue for a year “but the fire board members knew nothing about it.”

He questioned where the committee got its information to do a cost analysis, since the board was never asked to provide figures. Majure said he also took offense to a quote that indicated the fire district “lacked accountability.”

Bob Donaldson, a Lansing resident who said his only connection to the fire board was having some friends on it, asked for examples of greater accountability and reduced bureaucracy. He alleged this was more about “interpersonal relationships” and a decision led by council members who had personal vendettas.

Donaldson said he’d gone through the council’s meeting minutes for more than a year “and I can’t find one meeting when this was discussed” in an open session.

He predicted the volunteer firefighters would “take this as a slap in the face” and quit volunteering. He also argued that there’s no evidence to show that city-owned fire departments are more effective and efficient than one operated by a volunteer crew.

Brian Kellogg, a High Prairie township trustee, reminded council members of a meeting “about a month ago” when the conversation ensued about an interlocal agreement “and you said, no problem. So what happened between then and now?”

Even though he’s an elected official, he didn’t officially hear about the decision “until I got a letter Tuesday,” Kellogg said. “That’s unacceptable and this is shady.”

He mentioned that the High Prairie Township purchased the property and provided Fire District No. 2, handing it over to the city for $1. “This is pathetic,” he said, noting that he believes it will be more expensive for taxpayers if the city has to up the mill levy to provide fire protection.

Kellogg asked for an “independent audit” of the operations and figures and contended if this isn’t done, “it’s a personal vendetta between Rick Huhn or the board” and the city council. “What you’re doing here is wrong,” Kellogg contends.

Roberta Ready, Delaware Township’s clerk, reminded the council about the assistant chief who’d just been hired. “Let the man do his job,” she argued. “Give the new chief a chance to prove himself.”

Jim Dyson of High Prairie Township recalls he was in on the original interlocal agreement signed in 2003. He worries about the level of service High Prairie will get under the new organization.

The mayor, who made many conciliatory statements to the crowd and to the speakers, said the city planned to continue the same level of service. “I don’t want anything to change except the names on the truck,” he said. The city wants to provide contractual services to the townships under the new setup.

Kathleen Williams, the High Prairie Township clerk, said she’d signed many checks going to the city. “I think what you’re doing will break the trust” between the city and the townships. ”“You think the people will enter into a contract with you? How can we trust you?” Williams asked.

She, too, recalled the recent meeting when township representatives were invited and at the time were told, “Why would I break up a good deal?” A lot of people are angry, she said, and she hopes she doesn’t have to write a check for services to the city.

Terry Bartowski, the Delaware County treasurer, said it was obvious both townships were against the idea. “Why would we want to stay associated with Lansing to run a fire department?”

“This was not transparent at all,” he said, “and as a township board member, he’s asked, “What’s going on?” When several specific questions were asked, the city attorney said “It’s in the contract,” but who has had the ability to read that contract?

He suggested High Prairie and Delaware might opt to join Fairmount Township and Basehor or even operate their own fire services. “I’ve considered many of you to be smart people,” he told council members, but “today, not so much.”

The mayor mentioned ways the city could make citizens aware of the answers to the questions asked during the meeting. Later in the meeting, Smith and several council members apologized to City Administrator Tim Vandall, whom they said “took a lot of hits tonight” for carrying out the council’s policies.

Vandall also said he’d never intended in his remarks to offend fire board members when he’d mentioned more accountability. Rather, he meant only to suggest decisions would go to an elected body. He said he planned to call several of them the next day to apologize.

Council member Jesse Garvey said the council sometimes has to make “tough decisions for the betterment of the city,” a sentiment echoed by Council member Gregg Buehler. Council member Kerry Brungardt said he’d never seen the council act with a “personal vendetta against somebody,” and instead have acted with “no malice aforethought. We’ve made the best decisions we could with the information given to us.”

 

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