Expert’s appearance flops

Friday, February 22, 2019

Technical difficulties put a stop to the meeting this week between Alta City Council and Alta Fire Department as they gathered for a much-anticipated meeting with expert George Oster.

The meeting with Oster, a supposed expert in 501(c)3’s associated with fire departments, was positioned by Mayor Al Clark and City Council as a potential solution to the ongoing conflict that erupted after Clark refused to allow Kirk “Bubba” Reetz to be reappointed as the Fire Chief.

City Council authorized $600 in January to bring in Oster over Skype for a meeting to discuss proper procedures for running a non-profit associated with a fire department.

The well-attended meeting of about 35 people, including most of City Council and the city’s attorney, Gary Armstrong, packed the fire station only to be let down after technical difficulties persisted.

The meeting lasted about an hour and a half, of which Oster spoke for less than half the time, mostly on the very basics in a workshop that seemed to be tailored to cities who have not yet set up their fire departments.

“I hope to give you a dictionary of rules and options you have, and let you choose the best option in Alta and surrounding townships to provide emergency services,” said Oster in his introduction.

After the second disconnection, only a little over an hour into the meeting scheduled to last three hours, the crowd lost interest and started filing out to beat an incoming snow storm, most having learned nothing new.

Clark called the meeting off after a phone call with Oster, saying Oster felt the attendees were not getting much value out of the session with the interruptions. It was rescheduled for March 27 at 6:30 p.m. Clark asked Oster over the phone to cut out the more elementary content to get to the parts that address the beef in Alta, focused on closer relationships between departments.

The expert speaker conducts his meetings over video calls after a stroke left him partially paralyzed, making it difficult for him to travel.

But it seems that the $600 fee did not secure a way to conduct the meeting. This fire will need to wait another month to see if Oster can help put it out.

Oster worked for 25 years at the Fire Service Training Bureau (formerly the Fire Training Institute). He now conducts workshops like this one after extensive legal research about the funding of fire departments in Iowa.

Bad timing during budget season

The Fire Department also came up in the City’s last budget workshop as City Council discussed how it would start to save money for Street Department equipment.

“What are we putting away for a pay loader or dump truck while we’re putting away all this money for a fire truck?” asked Councilman Kevin Walsh.

‘We have equipment that’s usable now, but they need to be replaced at some point,” said Clark, suggesting the city do it in the same way it has with the fire department, with commitments from previous councils to set aside $50,000 each year for Fire Department necessities.

But short of tax raises, it didn’t seem like there was any extra money to set aside without making cuts to other departments.

“We’re putting all this money into the fire department and don’t have any money for street equipment,” said Councilman Denny Weber.

Suggestions to temporarily split their $50,000 to help the Street Department catch up were quickly quashed, understanding the optics of that move with the ongoing conflict with the Fire Department and Firemen’s Association.

Clark said the information he has requested previously from Reetz would have helped with these decisions.

“That’s why I asked for all this information before, to help us make decisions with budgets,” he said. “Not to be a bully.”

“I don’t think we should touch any of it right now,” said Vi Tilk.

The City Council left it alone.

Background

Both sides were hoping the session would clarify the situation in their favor.

Armstong contends the Alta Firemen’s Association is a “component unit” of the city. Any component unit is required to blend financial reporting with the city.

Reetz said at the last City Council meeting that he had not yet accepted the city attorney and city auditor opinions, saying they are a component unit of the city, due to discrepancies. He also said the organization is soliciting the state auditor’s office for an official ruling.

“If you don’t see what the Association is doing for the city, you don’t get the full picture of what the finances are,” Armstrong previously argued. “I just don’t think it’s a close question, and I haven’t run into anybody that thinks so either.”

Reetz contends that a substantial number of donors wishing to remain anonymous complicates the situation, something the mayor acknowledges as a legitimate concern and something that he claims can be censored in reports to the city.