Belton Fire Captain Steve Kratofil left the July 9 city council meeting feeling upset after he was told firefighters couldn’t be on the clock while working their annual Labor Day weekend boot block fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
“I think I got a little ambushed by our city manager bringing out a legal opinion and not sharing it with us beforehand,” Kratofil said.
In April, council members approved a motion allowing the boot block to be held Aug. 30-Sept. 2 without any opposition.
However, Kratofil was recently notified that he would need to get special permission for firefighters to be on the clock during the fundraising next month.
“The city manager got with the fire chief and said that if we do this on-duty, we need to come before the council and ask permission every time we do it or an ordinance needs to be drafted,” Kratofil said. “My communication with them was that we would appear, ask for permission, and be granted it.”
Kratofil was placed on the agenda as a special appearance, but was surprised the council was recently informed of an opinion from City Attorney Aaron March that Article 6, Section 25 of the Missouri Constitution would prevent the city from paying the firefighters for doing work that uniquely and exclusively benefits the MDA, and that the city council cannot authorize payment for this work without finding there is a legitimate city service being performed.
“The city attorney further stated that city employees may only be paid in exchange for actual service to the city,” City Manager Ron Trivitt said. “This position is confirmed in Attorney General Opinion No. 35-69. City employees are free to volunteer while off duty to work for the benefit of the MDA fundraiser or any other charity.”
Firefighters are still allowed to do the fundraiser on their own time.
After Kratofil and MDA representative Darrel Smith spoke in front of city leaders, council member Al Hoag asked for a motion to allow firefighters to do the fundraiser the way they have done it every year, but the motion died for lack of a second and no vote was taken.
“There’s a policy issue and there is a legal issue involved. No one has any problem whatsoever with the charity, the only question is whether the city employees should be paid while they are raising money for that and on-duty,” Trivitt said. “It had been allowed in the past, but we didn’t have that city attorney opinion in the past, either.”
In Belton, the MDA directly supports 12 families, and almost 18 others throughout Cass County.
Belton firefighters have also been the top fundraisers in the Kansas City region, raising between $9,000-$15,000 annually for the organization.
Kratofil said the MDA and their union will try to fight the opinion.
“It doesn’t interrupt our responses at all,” he said. “Here, we have two stations, so one station will go out and boot block and the other covers. If an emergency happens, we get right in the truck and go on.”
Belton firefighters have participated in the boot block in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Fighters for at least 30 years. In the time he has been with the department in the last 13 years, Kratofil says it has never been an issue that firefighters stay on the clock.
Kratofil said he is curious if the politics of Belton’s budget issues last winter in which the city’s public safety budgets came under fire had anything to do with the events that unfolded at the July 9 meeting.
“I don’t know if it’s kind of a payback for our fight that we had when they tried to lay us off,” Kratofil said.
In February, firefighters rallied against proposed cuts to the city’s 2014 budget that would have resulted in eliminating more than a dozen public safety positions.
The budget proposal asked the police department to cut nearly $270,000 and for the fire department to cut roughly $311,000 from their operating costs.
In late March, Kratofil told the council said the fire union finally reached an agreement with the city.
“I don’t know if it’s an attack on that, but it was pretty shocking this would be the direction the city would take,” he said.