Flare-up in Fire District No. 1: Sparks fly on finances

  • The Prudential Committee of South Hadley’s Fire District No. 1 meets on Wednesday, June 15. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Monday, July 04, 2022

SOUTH HADLEY — A meeting of the Prudential Committee of a South Hadley fire district generally doesn’t elicit tons of excitement. Most of the meetings are quick, perfunctory affairs.

But sparks flew at a tense special meeting Wednesday of Fire District No. 1’s Prudential Committee — the elected body in charge of that district’s finances — where accusations of financial mismanagement abounded.

South Hadley is one of a handful municipalities in the state where the fire department is not a department under the control of the town’s regular executive and legislature. Rather, South Hadley’s two fire districts have their own elected officials who manage the budgets for water and fire services.

The elected Prudential Committee of Fire District No. 1 held a special meeting Wednesday, with four warrant articles on the agenda that were intended to correct three mistakes made by district leadership: paying off a previously unpaid unemployment claim; sending additional money to the Hampshire County Retirement System, which the district owed due to a incorrect estimate by its clerk treasurer; and paying the clerk treasurer for an unexpected 53rd pay period last fiscal year.

All eligible voters who lived in the district could show up and vote at the meeting, similar to an open Town Meeting, and 31 district residents did show up to vote, cramming into the small meeting room at the back of the firehouse, many standing along the back wall and spilling out into the hallway.

A group of concerned voters sat in the middle of the room, raising objections to potential procedural missteps along the way and asking sharp questions about the financial transfers, which totaled more than $75,000.

At the back of the room was a larger group that was supportive of the district’s leadership, most of whom were firefighters and their families.

Some members of the audience questioned whether the meeting’s agenda was incorrectly posted in public, constituting a violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law. Notice of the meeting was posted June 1, but then revised on June 7. Some in the audience suggested that the open meeting law requires such warrants to be posted 14 days in advance of a meeting, though Fire District Clerk-Treasurer Terie Fleury said that she had a conversation with the secretary of state’s office, who told her that the district had to post warrants seven days in advance.

The secretary of state’s website shows that an Open Meeting Law complaint has been filed over the meeting.

The first article on the agenda was a transfer of $7,870 to cover the unemployment claim of a previous clerk-treasurer. The position is usually elected, but the previous clerk-treasurer was appointed after his predecessor resigned, meaning that when he was released after a new clerk-treasurer was elected, he was eligible to collect unemployment. The district is self-insured, meaning it has to pay unemployment claims out of its own coffers.

The claim, however, came into the district at a time when unemployment fraud was sweeping the state. Fleury said the district received as many as 40 fraudulent unemployment claims at the time, and that the state unemployment office told her not to pay the sham claims as it dealt with the massive statewide unemployment scam.

However, that meant that the one legitimate unemployment claim went unnoticed, Fleury said, and the district is now obligated to pay it with compounding interest.

After heated discussion, 22 people voted in favor of the transfer, from the fire stabilization account to a “personal services” account, and eight voted against it. But because the article stated that the money was a “prior year” expenditure, that kind of spending, by rule, must be approved by 90% of voters. In other words, it failed.

“Why is ‘prior year’ in there?” asked a befuddled Edward Wall, the moderator for the evening. He said that as a result of that language, which he said is incorrect because the bill is due currently, the article failed and would have to be redone properly, by which time the district will owe even more in interest.

The second article was to transfer $33,440 from fire stabilization to personal services — an account that critics said doesn’t exist. Fleury said it’s a broad category referring to payroll, and that the money was for firefighters receiving a pay bump from their union contract, an increase for the fire chief and a 53rd paycheck for herself. She said the paycheck for herself was because the last fiscal year contained 53 pay periods, which rarely happens, and that she otherwise wouldn’t be paid for that week.

“We just didn’t realize it until after we did payroll,” Fleury said, later adding: “Nobody in the district eats that week.”

Some in the audience, however, noted that the salaries of elected officials are set at the district’s annual meeting, which took place this year on June 1. One audience member, Mary Lou Guarnera, said that Fleury still received her entire salary, but spread out over 52 weeks instead of over 53 weeks.

“She’s not missing anything,” Guarnera said. “She just got paid in advance.”

That article passed 22-8 as well, with many firefighters voting in favor. That same dynamic played out in all of the votes.

The final two articles authorized the district to raise and appropriate through taxation more than $33,700 to give to the Hampshire County Retirement System. Fleury explained that she never received from the Hampshire County Retirement System the correct amount the district owed, meaning that she underpaid the system and the district still owes money.

Several audience members suggested that Fleury was sent the correct numbers in December and could have also requested those figures instead of estimating them. When Kevin Taugher, a former Prudential Committee member, asked why the district didn’t use free cash to cover those expenses, committee chairman Bruce Perron said the district had already spent down all of its cash.

“That’s unheard of,” Taugher said.

Several members of the critical faction in attendance said that the correct figures were available when the district’s budget was being put together this spring, and that it was a big blunder to miss them.

“Why would you wait? That’s a pretty important number to know and to confirm,” said resident Julie Gentile ahead of the meeting. “We’re going to end up having a tax rate increase due to incompetence ... The money is there but you’ve spent it wrong.”

Others, however, said Fleury was being unduly criticized for an error and unforeseen circumstances. Scott Walsh, a lieutenant in the fire department, spoke up in support of Fleury during the meeting. In a conversation afterward, he said he felt some people were demeaning her for making a “human error” and then catching it by “double and triple checking.”

“For somebody to make a mistake, that happens,” he said. As for the tenor of the meeting, he said it was unusual. “Usually things go through without a hitch.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.