By JEN CARDINES
Growing tension within the Southington Fire Department peaked at the March 13 Town Council meeting, when three councilors spoke out about an ongoing rift in the department’s ranks. During councilmanic communications, Ed Pocock III opened the conversation.
“We now have a bright red line drawn between the regulars and the volunteers,” Pocock said.
The division was first brought to the public record at the Jan. 9 council meeting when Fire Commission chair Michael Bunko needed to be reappointed for a four year term. Prior to the vote, Cheryl Lounsbury, John Barry, and Pocock wanted to table the action in order to investigate the problems within the department, but the motion failed.
During the January conversation, Lounsbury said that there was a lot of discourse in the department that she wanted to see settled.
“I want this to be a clear message of where I stand with the fire commission, and where I stand with both the paid police and paid firemen and volunteer firemen,” she said.
Bunko was reappointed that evening with a 7-1 vote that Lounsbury voted against. Since then, the department saw growing tension and personnel changes. Former Southington fire chief Buddy Clark retired from the department, and volunteers claimed that they weren’t being heard. Town Council members continued to be concerned about the conflicts.
Pocock began a series of discussions during recent council meetings to voice his frustration with the Fire Commission and submitted a letter from the volunteer captains to the Fire Commission on Feb. 11 to the record.
“You as commissioners did very little to correct the actions of a chief whose sole mission, no matter what he said, was to make the department 100 percent paid firemen,” the letter read. “Currently there are eight chiefs, four line captains, and 18 regular fire fighters. That is 12 paid officers for 18 regular paid fire fighters. We cannot imagine any business or any of our surrounding fire departments that top heavy.”
Bunko replied to the letter on March 3, stating that allegations about making the department purely paid firemen are “simply untrue.” He referenced section 42-2 of the Town Charter, which states, “The Fire Department shall consist of volunteer companies and paid companies and shall be maintained with such equipment as the Board of Fire Commissioners shall deem necessary.”
Bunko also wrote that the command staff is only a change in classifications and not promotions. “The change was a result of contract negotiations in the 2016 union contract.”
Pocock also submitted that letter to the record and disagreed with Bunko’s words at the March 13 council meeting.
“I find it disheartening that we are talking about it publically after the fact,” Councilor Dawn Miceli said at the March meeting. Motioning to her fellow councilors, she added, “I wish there had been discussion among these ranks right here.”
The current Board of Fire Commissioners consists of four Republicans and one Democrat.
“That to me does not seem balanced,” Chris Palmieri said. He is one of three Democrats on the council with Miceli and Barry. “We appoint the fire commissioners, and I think it’s reasonable to ask for a spot on our side of the aisle.”
Earlier this week, Board of Finance (BOF) member John Moise said that one of the bigger SFD problems is the management and the amount of overtime used. SFD requested $760,000 for their overtime budget.
“If we give them a blank check, it won’t solve anything,” Moise said.
The BOF gave the department $250,000 and left the remaining requested money for contingencies. “We will meet with them quarterly,” said Moise.
With uncertainty at the state level this budget season, town officials were also concerned when SFD officials lobbied for new positions and promoting positions. They were unable to promise a reduction in overtime costs, should they be granted more positions, so the town denied the request.
Councilors expressed that they will continue to investigate the issue and monitor the commission.