Firefighters lose hope in reversing city’s decision

bbashioum@demo-mo.comAugust 16, 2013 

Belton city leaders continue to stand firm in their decision to not allow on-duty firefighters to work their annual “Fill the Boot” fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association at the intersection of Highway 58 and Y over Labor Day weekend.

Yet, firefighters felt that they needed to give city leaders another push, but officials weren’t ready to budge during the Aug. 13 council meeting.

As some may speculate, the Belton firefighters’ union leaders believe the issue isn’t about whether they’re getting paid or not.

Union leaders, instead, say that it’s about getting retaliation from the city’s budget issues in the spring.

“You’re using this situation to retaliate against these firefighter’s abilities to serve the community,” said Mike Cambiano, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 42. “We cut five positions from your fire department and made every cut we could make from our bargaining unit that would not affect public safety. We made these cuts, saving this city over $411,000 a year.”

A series of personal appearances supporting on-duty firefighters to participate in the fundraiser were made at Tuesday’s meeting, including a plea from Cambiano. It didn’t take long before the meeting turned into a heated and passionate discussion among the attendees and city leaders.

At one point in the meeting, Councilman Everett Loughridge stood up and walked out of the meeting at his displeasure of how the meeting was going.

“If you need a villain, if you need someone to hate, I’m your guy,” Cambiano said. “It was my decision. The firefighters had discussed giving up their raises and changes other areas of their contract but I would not allow it because the city manager and the assistant manager failed to address the other areas where we had redundancy.”

Cambiano said he initially wanted to handle the issue off-line.

“But our frustration is, ‘Why you would choose to punish us?’” he asked. “You’re affecting our ability to serve these kids and that’s not something we’re willing to accept.”

In Belton, the MDA directly supports 12 families, and about 18 others throughout Cass County. Some of those families also showed their support for the firemen on Aug. 13.

Belton firefighters are also one of the highest-collecting departments in the Kansas City area.

Cambiano said the city’s decision to override a decision this summer that the council made in April to approve the firefighter’s on-duty participation boot block in the same matter they have done for decades is retaliation for the failed budget talks after firefighters rallied against proposed cuts to the city’s 2014 budget that would have resulted in eliminating more than a dozen public safety positions.

After he thought things had cooled down, Belton Fire Captain Steve Kratofil was surprisingly put on the spot at a July city council meeting and was told that he would need to get special permission for firefighters to be on the clock during the fundraiser, citing a new legal opinion brought forth by City Attorney Aaron March from the Attorney General’s office.

March states 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.

Kratofil was denied permission and has been fighting the decision since.

This week, Cambiano said the AG’s opinion from 1969 is irrelevant and was made in response to a different type of issue.

The union says their legal opinions say it’s up to the discretion of the city whether they choose that the firefighters can remain on the clock or not.

“Why are they are retaliating against us?” he said. “I think you need to ask yourself who directed the city attorney to find this 1969 opinion? Why do you ignore the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff’s phone call to the city attorney telling them this does not apply to this situation?”

When asked, city leaders couldn’t point to any extra costs to the city whether the firefighters are at their station reading a book, or standing on the street corner of a busy intersection, putting the face of the Belton firefighters out to the public, bringing awareness to fire safety while also raising funds for Cass County children as part of a long-standing firefighter tradition.

“The question I do have is that this keeps coming back to pay. If we do it on-duty versus off-duty, what is the savings to the city?” Kratofil asked. “There is no dollar amount the city gives up for this at all.”

City Manager Ron Trivitt and Fire Chief Steven Holle couldn’t provide a figure to Kratofil’s answer.

“They couldn’t equate any to it,” Kratofil said. “To me, that means that it’s zero, and that law talks about money exchanged and none is that is happening.”

Cambiano said if a call comes in during the boot block, the firefighters get on their rig and get on their way.

But for Belton city leaders, they say they are simply doing what they’ve been tasked to do when they took an oath of office – upholding the Missouri Constitution. Otherwise, paying firefighters for working the event would be illegal.

“We’re bound to support the Constitution. So far, we’ve asked the union for months now to give us a legislative case, something that is practical, that will change this and they can’t do it. The council would love to find something that would make it legal,” Davis said. “They don’t want to give up their holiday weekend and come and come do their charity, is what it amounts to. To me, that’s tragic.”

Despite the controversy, the city still supports the firefighters to do the fundraiser on their own time, and Kratofil has pledged that the event will still go on.

“The good news is that we’ll still be collecting for the kids and we’re still going to get our public relations message out here on a volunteer basis,” he said. “We’re going to have the best year, I think, ever.”

Kratofil’s said his appearance this week was the last plea he would make for this year’s event unless something drastically changes.

“I was pretty deflated that the city attorney was staying behind his opinion and that the city manager was sticking to his opinion,” Kratofil said. “I felt bad for the council because to me, they weren’t given the conscious choice to weigh in on this decision. “

The firefighter’s issue has also stirred up the pot for other issues in the city Tuesday night.

Councilman Al Hoag asked if the city was going to look at the way the it handles other fundraisers that are done among employees throughout the year, including the work they do for United Way.

City leaders appeared shocked that the question came up. Davis later said City Clerk Patti Ledford will organize a work session meeting to discuss the issue.

“I think that’s a valid question, ‘What do we do?’” Davis said. “With being the new boy on the block, as the mayor, it seems there has been, on both sides, everyone playing ‘gotcha.’”

The mayor said he’s also going to work on improving communication among the city council and staff.

“That is the No. 1 problem in Belton right now,” he emphasized. “I feel the relations need to get better.”

Belton city leaders continue to stand firm in their decision to not allow on-duty firefighters to work their annual “Fill the Boot” fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association at the intersection of Highway 58 and Y over Labor Day weekend.

Yet, firefighters felt that they needed to give city leaders another push, but officials weren’t ready to budge during the Aug. 13 council meeting.

As some may speculate, the Belton firefighters’ union leaders believe the issue isn’t about whether they’re getting paid or not.

Union leaders, instead, say that it’s about getting retaliation from the city’s budget issues in the spring.

“You’re using this situation to retaliate against these firefighter’s abilities to serve the community,” said Mike Cambiano, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 42. “We cut five positions from your fire department and made every cut we could make from our bargaining unit that would not affect public safety. We made these cuts, saving this city over $411,000 a year.”

A series of personal appearances supporting on-duty firefighters to participate in the fundraiser were made at Tuesday’s meeting, including a plea from Cambiano. It didn’t take long before the meeting turned into a heated and passionate discussion among the attendees and city leaders.

At one point in the meeting, Councilman Everett Loughridge stood up and walked out of the meeting at his displeasure of how the meeting was going.

“If you need a villain, if you need someone to hate, I’m your guy,” Cambiano said. “It was my decision. The firefighters had discussed giving up their raises and changes other areas of their contract but I would not allow it because the city manager and the assistant manager failed to address the other areas where we had redundancy.”

Cambiano said he initially wanted to handle the issue off-line.

“But our frustration is, ‘Why you would choose to punish us?’” he asked. “You’re affecting our ability to serve these kids and that’s not something we’re willing to accept.”

In Belton, the MDA directly supports 12 families, and about 18 others throughout Cass County. Some of those families also showed their support for the firemen on Aug. 13.

Belton firefighters are also one of the highest-collecting departments in Kansas City.

Cambiano said the city’s decision to override a decision this summer that the council made in April to approve the firefighter’s on-duty participation boot block in the same matter they have done for decades is retaliation for the failed budget talks after firefighters rallied against proposed cuts to the city’s 2014 budget that would have resulted in eliminating more than a dozen public safety positions.

After he thought things had cooled down, Belton Fire Captain Steve Kratofil was surprisingly put on the spot at a July city council meeting and was told that he would need to get special permission for firefighters to be on the clock during the fundraiser, citing a new legal opinion brought forth by City Attorney Aaron March from the Attorney General’s office.

March states 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.

Kratofil was denied permission and has been fighting the decision since.

This week, Cambiano said the AG’s opinion from 1969 is irrelevant and was made in response to a different type of issue.

The union says their legal opinions say it’s up to the discretion of the city whether they choose that the firefighters can remain on the clock or not.

“Why are they are retaliating against us?” he said. “I think you need to ask yourself who directed the city attorney to find this 1969 opinion? Why do you ignore the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff’s phone call to the city attorney telling them this does not apply to this situation?”

When asked, city leaders couldn’t point to any extra costs to the city whether the firefighters are at their station reading a book, or standing on the street corner of a busy intersection, putting the face of the Belton firefighters out to the public, bringing awareness to fire safety while also raising funds for Cass County children as part of a long-standing firefighter tradition.

“The question I do have is that this keeps coming back to pay. If we do it on-duty versus off-duty, what is the savings to the city?” Kratofil asked. “There is no dollar amount the city gives up for this at all.”

City Manager Ron Trivitt and Fire Chief Steven Holle couldn’t provide a figure to Kratofil’s answer.

“They couldn’t equate any to it,” Kratofil said. “To me, that means that it’s zero, and that law talks about money exchanged and none is that is happening.”

Cambiano said if a call comes in during the boot block, the firefighters get on their rig and get on their way.

But for Belton city leaders, they say they are simply doing what they’ve been tasked to do when they took an oath of office – upholding the Missouri Constitution. Otherwise, paying firefighters for working the event would be illegal.

“We’re bound to support the Constitution. So far, we’ve asked the union for months now to give us a legislative case, something that is practical, that will change this and they can’t do it. The council would love to find something that would make it legal,” Davis said. “They don’t want to give up their holiday weekend and come and come do their charity, is what it amounts to. To me, that’s tragic.”

Despite the controversy, the city still supports the firefighters to do the fundraiser on their own time, and Kratofil has pledged that the event will still go on.

“The good news is that we’ll still be collecting for the kids and we’re still going to get our public relations message out here on a volunteer basis,” he said. “We’re going to have the best year, I think, ever.”

Kratofil’s said his appearance this week was the last plea he would make for this year’s event unless something drastically changes.

“I was pretty deflated that the city attorney was staying behind his opinion and that the city manager was sticking to his opinion,” Kratofil said. “I felt bad for the council because to me, they weren’t given the conscious choice to weigh in on this decision. “

The firefighter’s issue has also stirred up the pot for other issues in the city Tuesday night.

Councilman Al Hoag asked if the city was going to look at the way the it handles other fundraisers that are done among employees throughout the year, including the work they do for United Way.

City leaders appeared shocked that the question came up. Davis later said City Clerk Patti Ledford will organize a work session meeting to discuss the issue.

“I think that’s a valid question, ‘What do we do?’” Davis said. “With being the new boy on the block, as the mayor, it seems there has been, on both sides, everyone playing ‘gotcha.’”

The mayor said he’s also going to work on improving communication among the city council and staff.

“That is the No. 1 problem in Belton right now,” he emphasized. “I feel the relations need to get better.”

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