A deal is in the final stages that would see Georgian Bluffs take over sole ownership of the Inter Township Fire Department by buying out Meaford’s stake.
Under the arrangement, Meaford would still receive fire coverage from the ITFD for the western portion of the municipality through a contract with its former partner.
But before the agreement is finalized, the public in the former Sydenham Township will be notified and a public meeting will be held next month to gather input.
“Obviously this is an issue that affects a lot of people and we want everybody to understand the rationale and what this actually means,” Meaford Mayor Barb Clumpus said Tuesday.
“Both Georgian Bluffs and the Municipality of Meaford have decided there is a better way to effectively manage the fire suppression services in our municipality.”
In a committee of the whole meeting Oct. 19, Meaford council passed a motion directing staff to move forward with a public consultation process regarding the proposed dissolution of the ITFD partnership and entering into of a fee-for-service fire suppression agreement with Georgian Bluffs provided by the ITFD.
All residents of the former Sydenham Township will be sent a letter informing them of the plan and a public meeting will be held Nov. 17 at the Woodford Hall to provide information and receive input. Details of the meeting have to be finalized, but it is expected to be an all-day event to allow residents to come and go and ensure physical distancing and gathering limit requirements are met.
“The open house will be a full day event that will give people a lot of time to come in and talk with staff and councillors who will be there. I certainly will be there,” Clumpus said. “It is an opportunity to express their concerns or their opinion and to understand really what this entails and what it is all about.”
Georgian Bluffs council passed its own motion on Oct. 21 directing staff to prepare bylaws to dissolve the partnership and enter into a five-year fee-for-service agreement with Meaford.
Georgian Bluffs Mayor Dwight Burley said Tuesday that Meaford initiated the talks to dissolve the partnership and his municipality has agreed to it.
“The name will stay the same and even firefighters from Sydenham will be a part of the Inter Township Fire Department either way,” Burley said. “We are going to offer (Meaford) a service and provide it mainly to the former Sydenham area.”
Burley said in his eyes the process is nearing completion and his municipality expects to bring the bylaw forward next month to finalize it on their end.
Meaford Clerk Matt Smith said during his municipality’s meeting on Oct. 19 that the stage the municipalities have reached now is the culmination of about three-and-a-half years of work.
In 2017 concerns were raised by staff about the agreement, particularly the legal status of the ITFD joint board and the authority it had over fire department operations. A legal opinion found that the board’s establishment did not fully define the roles, duties and expectations of the board. Also in 2017, the Office of the Fire Marshal conducted a voluntary review of the provision of fire services in Meaford, with a key finding that the same level of services must be provided in all areas of the municipality.
After receiving that report, in 2018, Meaford council passed a motion to provide notice to Georgian Bluffs about its intent to renegotiate the partnership agreement and ask staff to look into its options for providing fire services in the municipality.
The proposed agreement that has been drawn up would dissolve the ITFD partnership, which is 75 per cent owned by Georgian Bluffs and 25 per cent owned by Meaford. The department was formed before amalgamation to serve the former townships of Derby, Keppel and Sarawak in Georgian Bluffs, and Sydenham in Meaford.
Under the deal, Georgian Bluffs will take over 100 per cent of the assets of the department by buying out Meaford’s 25 per cent share with a lump sum payment of just over $488,000.
Meaford will also receive a portion of funds held in reserve for the ITFD. Smith said Meaford is likely to receive about $200,000, which staff are recommending will go specifically into a reserve for future fire needs in the western part of the municipality.
Under the five-year fee-for-service deal, ITFD firefighters would continue to attend fire calls, motor vehicle collisions and medical calls in the coverage area. Residential would see no visible change in services, except for areas affected by a closest hall response principle being developed.
That principle sees the department that can arrive and fight a fire at a given property the fastest being the department that dispatched to the call. Smith said Meaford is being mapped to see where closest hall response is appropriate. Once that map is finished, Meaford staff will discuss it with Georgian Bluffs staff and the fire chiefs. The map will be ready for the public meeting on Nov. 17, Smith said.
While Smith said financial considerations are not the driver behind the proposal, Meaford is expected to realize a savings due to the agreement. In the first year, the service is expected to cost the municipality about $146,000, down from about $174,000. Over the five-year agreement the municipality expects to realize a savings of about $245,000.
After the public meeting on Nov. 17, the matter is expected to be brought back to Meaford council on Nov. 30, where council will decide how to proceed. Smith made it clear that a final decision has not been made yet.
Clumpus said the move to dissolve the ITFD partnership is not a reflection on the service being provided in any way, and the service will continue as before without interruption under the fee-for-service agreement. Meaford already has other fee-for-service agreements in which The Blue Mountains fire department provides services in a portion of Meaford and one where the Meaford department provides service for a portion of Grey Highlands.
“This is not about the service provided by the ITFD. They are an excellent service, they have served us well and they continue to serve us well,” Clumpus said. “This is all about the governance model that we are trying to deal with in a way that satisfies both communities, both Georgian Bluffs and the Municipality of Meaford.”
Clumpus highlighted that the deal being proposed will involve a five-year agreement that doesn’t contain any break clause. Meaford also has the option to extend it for another five years beyond that.
“It is a very, very fair and equitable arrangement that has been worked out by the staff working together from both municipalities,” she said.
While the intent was for the partnership dissolution to take effect on Jan. 1, 2021, Clumpus said that may be delayed.
“The target is to tidy this up as quickly as possible after the public explanations and the public is satisfied with it,” she said.