Gunter City Council tables fire department contract discussion

GUNTER — The major item of interest at this week’s Gunter City Council meeting, judging audience reaction, was the pending contract the city officials are asking the Gunter Volunteer Fire Department to sign. Because the fire department has objections to several items in it, they have enlisted the services of Sherman attorney Bob Jarvis as counsel.

Jarvis explained during an interview that the new contract will give the city more control of the fire department’s expenses, of some of the fire station space, designate how many volunteers will be required to be at the station at any given time, and eliminate the long-standing Boy Scouts Explorer program sponsored by the volunteer fire department.

The city owns the fire trucks, some through donations from the Texas Forestry Service, and has put up money to help building the fire station. The fire chief, Kevin Price, is a paid city employee, while the firefighters and first responders with the Gunter F.D. are volunteers.

Jarvis said, waiting in the Community Center while the Council was in executive session, that if the city and the fire department can’t reach an agreement, the city could contract with another group for fire protection services.

In open session the Council continued with four of the five listed executive session items. The first involved negotiations with a developer working with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which was approved, and then regarding the agreement with Skybeam Inc. for placement of a wireless tower and equipment on city-owned water tank. That, too, was unanimously approved.

Then, the item of the contract was brought to the table. Gunter City Attorney Kimberly Lafferty and Jarvis discussed some of the issues, as did Mayor Mark Merrill. Council member Sherri Morgan has tendered her resignation, which was accepted Tuesday night, and so was absent. At the table were Council members Larry Peters, Charles Skeen, Leilani Holloway, and Rosa Mercado.

Lafferty explained that the city had originally asked for five or six people to be assigned to be at the fire station at every shift, and that the city had reduced that request to a requirement of three volunteers being on duty. Jarvis countered, saying the fire department wants no provisions in any contract stating how many will be required to be on duty at the station. “These are volunteers,” Jarvis reminded. Lafferty said, “There needs to be some kind of provisions there to guarantee us some kind of fire protection.”

The discussion shifted to points made about the training room in the fire station, which, Jarvis explained, is a training room for the volunteers. Because the public wants occasionally to use the room for private affairs, the city wants to be able to schedule that. Jarvis said there were two problems connected with that, the first being that the room is designed as a training room. He did not get a chance to describe the second problem before Mercado commented that the building was constructed for city hall and for the fire department. She said people who want to use it shouldn’t have to call the fire department. Again, Jarvis said it was a question of control, and Lafferty said it was for a greater public good.

Merrill asked why the city should have to exercise eminent domain in such an instance. Jarvis asked them, “Have you all become so antagonistic with the fire department that you think they wouldn’t work with you in such an emergency?” That brought the first round of hand-clapping from the spectators. “If so, there are bigger problems here than a contract.”

The discussion brought up the Explorer program, which city officials said could be harmful to the city in case of liability problems. Jarvis said that the Explorer program is covered under the insurance of the Boy Scouts of America.

Merrill expressed another concern he had, saying he had asked for documents housed in the fire station and has not received those documents.”These are pertaining to fire protection and services provided, and my requests have not been responded to, even after repeated requests,” Merrill said. He added that he has spoke with the Grayson County District Attorney, the Grayson County Judge, the Texas Municipal League, and the Texas Attorney General’s Office regarding the matters.

“My concern is how the taxpayers’ dollars are spent,” Merrill said. Jarvis answered, “How do you not know, because you write the check for each and every expenditure.”

Merrill said he has been discussing the contract with a neighboring town that had the “very same issue. That city has a contract now. Part of the reason I believe we need a contract is when we have new (developments). What contractual obligation do they (the fire department) have to provide fire protection?”

Merrill said he has discussed fire department expenses with the city of Van Alstyne. “They spend $700,000 (yearly) to pay personnel, and all of that, 100 percent, is recouped through ambulance service,” he said.

That discussion continued until the Council decided to table any votes until April 10, when they will meet again in special session. In the meantime, the two attorneys agreed to meet together on the contract. Jarvis said, “I think with this framework we have some things we can work on, and can sit down and make sure everybody understands.”

The Council then tabled the executive session item regarding the employment agreement with Price, with Merrill explaining that he has asked the mayor pro tem to work with Lafferty and Price on those details. Then, the Council tabled the last item, regarding complaints made about city procedures and handling of matter by city personnel.

Then, the Council went back to the agenda order and opened the floor for the public. Mark Millar was the only one who took the microphone. He said he was surprised that the resignation of a council member (Morgan) was on the agenda, but with nothing on how to replace that person. The mayor discussed the matter with him, then said that people wanting to apply for the seat could go through City Hall for that, and that there have already been three people to apply or it.

Millar added, regarding the fire department issues, “I’ve been a volunteer fire department member forever. I live 10 minutes away. I make 90 percent of the calls, 24 hours a day. I would feel cheated if the agreement (contract) does not recognize those who have a wife and a bed to sleep in and are close enough to respond. I am always here, and I have never stayed here.”

Millar also directly addressed Merrill, saying, “There is some discussion of distrust. I’ve heard from several people, in and out of the fire department who said you have threatened to lock the fire department. The fire department doesn’t feel like you shoot straight.”

Corrected at 12:30 p.m. April 9, 2012: An earlier version of this article incorrectedly stated the first name of the Gunter mayor. His name is Mark Merrill.