By MEL ROTHENBURGER
Director, Electoral Area P, TNRD
The TNRD board rejected an opportunity Wednesday (June 12, 2019) to go after provincial funding for society-run rural fire brigades, citing a familiar concern — legal liability.
A recommendation from staff to apply only for funding for TNRD-owned fire departments was approved overwhelmingly. The board also agreed to ask Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth to resolve the liability issue.
At the last board meeting I had made a motion to put the issue of funding for fire brigades (in view of a new $5 million provincial fund designed to assist rural volunteer fire departments) on the agenda for Wednesday’s committee of the whole meeting. CAO Sukh Gill had replied that a motion wasn’t necessary and staff would simply squeeze it onto the agenda.
As I explained to the board Wednesday, I was surprised and disappointed to find a four-page report from staff on the agenda along with a recommendation to apply only on behalf of TNRD-operated fire departments, not society-run brigades. I had expected there would be a broad discussion before considering any action.
I brought to light the fact there’s no legislative provision for the province to accept applications directly from the brigades for this particular fund, so brigades must channel their applications through local governments. That puts them at a disadvantage if regional districts are willing to support only their own fire departments.
A quick bit of background: in February 2018, on recommendations from staff, the board decided to stop collecting taxes for any fire service not operated by the TNRD and to cut off discretionary funding to brigades, which are not funded through taxation. I opposed this, taking the position that the TNRD should be proactive in reaching out to brigades and helping them meet necessary standards.
Brigades are sometimes established in small communities with populations that are too small to support the establishment and operation of a traditional fire department with a hall and truck, so they set up community brigades instead.
Examples are the Pinantan, Paul Lake and East Paul Lake brigades but there are a few others around the region as well. They survive by doing their own fundraising and getting a few donations. I had used my director’s discretionary fund to provide them with a few hundred dollars here and there.
The reason for putting a stop to funding brigades was concern about liability should a lawsuit arise from the actions of a brigade. The board feared that if it provided financial assistance to a brigade, it might be swept in to such a lawsuit.
The liability issue was the focus of much of the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting. Staff’s recommendation was this:
RECOMMEND THAT the Board direct staff to submit a funding application to the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund, re Volunteer & Composite Fire Department Equipment & Training Program for funding to support initiatives for the TNRD’s owned and operated fire departments.
They also made a second recommendation, which I had no problem with:
RECOMMEND THAT the Board submit a letter to UBCM requesting that future funding program criteria be developed to allow Regional Districts to submit multiple applications to the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund, based on the number of communities served.
Here’s a summary of the position I expressed to the board.
The report states, “If the TNRD submitted an application on behalf of societies or improvement districts, this would count as the TNRD’s one application. It would cancel the TNRD’s opportunity to submit an application for its 8 fire departments.”
I pointed out it has been confirmed by several sources, including the UBCM, Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone’s office, and the Ministry of Public Safety, that regional districts are allowed to submit an application that includes projects both from regional district-operated fire departments and society-run fire brigades.
The report states that in February 2018, the TNRD board passed two resolutions on fire department funding, one of which cut off discretionary funding to society-run fire brigades.
This is true — the board made the decision (which I opposed) after legal advice that funding the brigades might make the board liable. But the board is also on record through two resolutions adopted at the 2018 UBCM convention calling for provincial funding for fire brigades.
I contended that this meant the board had already severed the issue, in effect taking the position that direct funding from the TNRD was a problem but supporting the funding of brigades by the province is not.
Further, I informed the board that on May 31, the day after staff signed off on its report, Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes told Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth during a Committee of Supply meeting in Victoria that a way needs to be found for the Province to distribute grants directly to fire brigades rather than through local governments. She said regional districts are worried about liability if they sponsor provincial funding for brigades.
Farnworth replied, “…That’s not how it’s supposed to work and we’re happy to take proactive—and communicate with these regional districts if that is an issue and see if we can’t resolve it.”
In other words, he will talk to regional districts with a view to resolving the liability concern. In view of that commitment, I said refusing to sponsor fire brigade applications for funding would be premature, and moved:
“That Recommendation 1 be postponed until the TNRD asks for, and receives, a written response from Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth with respect to the potential liability of regional districts in sponsoring applications from society-operated fire brigades for the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund or other provincial funding.”
Several directors spoke against the motion, including Ken Christian, Ronaye Elliott and Steve Rice. Among their reasons were that we should wait for a change in legislation, that there was no guarantee Farnworth would resolve the issue before the November deadline for applications, that we shouldn’t cut off the opportunity for TNRD-operate fire departments to apply under the program, and that we shouldn’t make ourselves liable.
I argued that I wasn’t asking for TNRD-operated departments to be cut off, nor that the TNRD put itself in a position of liability, only that the opportunity for brigades not be cut off. I said the $25,000 maximum grant under the program is a small amount divided among TNRD fire departments but would be a major boost for brigades.
The reason I feel so strongly about going after this funding for brigades is that it’s the first time the Province has made them eligible for funding. The TNRD has a responsibility to communities served by society-operated fire brigades, not just those that have TNRD fire departments.
I and Director Sally Watson voted for the motion to postpone. As far as I could tell, 23 directors voted against it.
The board then approved the staff recommendation, after which I moved:
“That the TNRD write to the Minister of Public Safety with respect to the potential liability of regional districts in sponsoring applications from society-operated fire brigades for the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund or other provincial funding, and for clarification of whether such liability exists.”
That motion was approved. When I spoke with staff today (June 13, 2019), the question came up whether the problem could be resolved if the provincial government were to direct funding applications through a different agency. That’s being investigated at the staff level and I will also see what I can find out.
And, if Farnworth comes up with a solution before the deadline, I’ll raise it again with the board. I’ve learned that this challenge requires patience and determination. Progress is slow but there’s definitely been some progress.