In most small communities people in charge of local fire departments do it on a volunteer basis.
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters have found one Connecticut fire district where commissioners earn thousands, including bonuses, get free gas and they have taxing authority.
The Blue Hills Fire District’s three commissioners get credit cards, cellphones, and more. And two of the three commissioners are married to full time firefighters in that department and they have to vote on things like pay, expenses, and working conditions. The mostly volunteer department has an annual budget of $1.5 million and covers half the town of Bloomfield. The board includes Tanya Farmer, former Blue Hills firefighter Jerry Hughes, and Ariel Jaunai.
Documents obtained by the Troubleshooters show Jaunai gets a $5000 annual stipend. Last year she also received a $6000 fiscal year end bonus, a $2000 Christmas bonus and 20 gallons of free gas per week, worth at least another $2000 per year. Jaunai’s grand total is roughly $15,000 for the most recently completed fiscal year.
Tanya Farmer, who chairs the board of commissioners, also received the same $5000 stipend, $6000 year end bonus, $2000 Christmas bonus, and gas package worth roughly $2000, which puts her total from the district also at approximately $15,000.
Jerry Hughes, a retired Blue Hills firefighter, got a little less. He receives the $5000 stipend and got the $6000 year end bonus. His Christmas bonus was $600, and he has not taken the free gasoline, so his perks total close to $12,000. These benefits for the three volunteer commissioners approach $42,000, which is almost 3 percent of the fire district’s budget and money that could have been spent on fire department equipment or training.
In an email response to one of our FOI requests seeking department bylaws explaining the $5000 and gas allowance, Commissioner Farmer said, “I have been unable to locate any written bylaws that outline what the commissioner's stipend or gas allowance is. Those precedents were set many, many years ago and have been followed traditionally by each administration.”
In response to our written questions about the thousands in bonuses the commissioners received, the board did not cite bylaws but said “Christmas bonuses for paid employees and commissioners have been in existence for quite some time. Performance bonuses began approximately 3 years ago…for commissioners the Christmas bonus in 2015 was calculated based on relative performance and active participation in business of the district. Commissioners evaluated each other, and the amounts paid out were based on those evaluations. As far as the fiscal year end performance bonuses all commissioners received $6000.”
Taxpayer Anne Wall has concerns with the perks.
"That’s ridiculous. The public doesn’t know that," Wall said.
Contrast that to what commissioners from the town’s other fire district tell us they receive…only an expense reimbursement of up to $1000 per year.
We also had questions about this past July when Blue Hills fire commissioners held an executive session out of town at a popular seafood restaurant. The meal cost taxpayers $90, including tip.
Commissioners wrote us the executive session involved personnel, procedures, and fundraising and, ”We should not have held such meeting outside of the district; nor should our discussion have been in executive session. For many years we have been deficient at compliance with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act and the meeting at the restaurant is just one example of that. We are seeking advice and guidance to be sure we comply with FOIA rules in the future. No decisions, no votes and no action was taken at this meeting…as for the meal charge, we did charge the expense to the district as we were meeting for the purpose of discussing district business.”
So who has the final say when it comes to how smaller fire districts in our state are managed? Most answer to their local governments. But more than 50 departments, including the Blue Hills Fire District, have taxing authority and often answer to no one. Bloomfield Mayor Joan Gamble confirms the Blue Hills Fire District gets almost all its funding from the $330 per year it collects from the average Bloomfield homeowner. Gamble adds, "I can voice my displeasure but unfortunately we're shackled. You want to be able to fix everything. And you can basically fix nothing."
Connecticut Fire Chief’s Association president Mike Thurz tells us there is also no one on a state level overseeing how fire departments are managed.
"There's got to be some sort of checks and balances applied to any of those situations. Without that it's just chaos!" Thurz said.
Mayor Gamble tells NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters she’s looking further into what we uncovered, and has shown up at fire district meetings in the past to voice her displeasure. The next commissioners meeting is Wednesday Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. at the Blue Hills Fire Department headquarters at 1021 Blue Hills Avenue in Bloomfield.
Find the full interview with Blue Hill here.
Below is the full list of fire departments in Connecticut with "taxing authority."
NOTE: They are often called “special taxing districts”. This means they levy a separate tax on anyone with property on a town’s grand list. Since they generate their own revenue they often (but not always) do not have to answer to local governments on any decisions they make on staffing, pay, etc. Many of these Fire Tax Districts are run by boards of commissioners.
Barkhamsted Fire District
Berlin - Kensington FD
Berlin -Worthington FD
Bloomfield, Center FD
Bloomfield, Blue Hills FD
Cromwell Fire District
Enfield Fire District #1
Enfield Thompsonville FD #2
Enfield, Hazardville Fire Dist.#3
Enfield, No. Thompsonville Fire Dist. #4
Enfield Shaker Pines Fire Dist #5
Groton, Poquonock Bridge Fire
Groton, Mystic Fire
Groton, Noank Fire
Groton, Old Mystic Fire
Groton - Center Fire
Groton, W. Pleasant Valley Fire
Killingly Attawaugan FD
Killingly Dayville FD
Killingly E. Killiingly FD
Killingly So. Killingly FD
Killingly Williamsville FD
Manchester 8th Fire + Sewer
Middletown, South Fire
Middletown, Westfield Fire
Middletown, City Fire
New Hartford Village FD #1
New Hartford Pine Meadow #3
New Hartford South End FD #4
New Milford Fire Association
North Canaan Fire District
Norwich City (Vol Fire)(Town)(TCD)
Norwich, City of (Paid Fire) (CCD)
Plainfield FD # 255
Plainfield Moosup FD
Plainfield Central Village F.D.
Plainfield Wauregan F.D.
Pomfret Fire District
Redding Fire District One
Redding Fire District Two
Redding Georgetown FD
Simsbury - Fire District
Sterling, Fire District
Stonington Mystic FD #239
Stonington Pawcatuck FD #264
Stonington Quiambaug FD #378
Stonington FD #265
Stonington Wequetequock FD #379
Stonington Old Mystic FD #366
Trumbull Long Hill FD
Trumbull Center FD
Trumbull Nichols FD
West Haven, First Center
West Haven, West Shore (2d)
West Haven, Allingtown (Third)
Weston - Georgetown FD
Wilton - Georgetown FD
Windsor, Wilson Fire District
Windsor, Windsor Fire District