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Fire districts left out of COVID-19 funding

Firefighter Shane Hollander of the Eagle Joint Fire District in Hubbard talks about some of the fire district’s needs. The fire district, like others, received no direct pandemic relief funds. John Morris, clerk for the Eagle Joint Fire District, said the district also did not receive any COVID-19 funds from either Hubbard city or Hubbard Township. Staff photo / R. Michael Semple

Leaders of four Mahoning Valley fire districts say their departments got shortchanged when pandemic relief funds were handed out.

A Valley congressman says that’s because those who assembled the plan were more concerned about bigger cities than smaller communities.

The fire chiefs and a clerk say that stinks.

For example, with 2,300 calls responded to last year in the Canfield area by the Cardinal Joint Fire District, Chief Don Hutchison said he’s not pleased that the district received only $28,000 in COVID-19 relief funds — from Canfield Township.

While Hutchison is grateful for the infusion from the township since his staff put lives on the line during the coronavirus pandemic, other area joint fire districts in Mahoning and Trumbull counties received no direct COVID-19 relief funds.

“We received one half of what was left over from Canfield Township. There was a lot of money provided to cities, townships and counties but the state officials overlooked the fire districts,” he said — noting the district received no funds from Canfield city.

“It was a surprise that the state officials did not include the joint fire districts. We were in need of another ambulance with all the people we were transporting. With all that the fire districts do — just like a city or township fire department — you would think we would have received funds,” Hutchison said.

He said there was a lot of sick time and overtime during the pandemic for the fire district staff who were transporting sick people. Hutchison said there also was need for more fire gear with all the needed disinfecting and cleaning.

“The state politicians forgot us. It’s ridiculous since we do what the other fire departments were doing. As a fire district we ran 2,300 calls, and we only ended up with $28,000. Some more of that funding could have come to us,” Hutchison said.

Hutchison said other area fire departments, which are not part of joint fire districts, did receive pandemic relief funding including Austintown and Boardman fire departments.

LEFT OUT?

U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce, whose district includes portions of northern and central Trumbull County, said the federal bill that provided funding concentrated on the bigger cities and ignored the smaller communities so joint fire districts ended up with nothing.

“The problem with the bill as a whole is it went from the speaker’s office (Nancy Pelosi) to the floor without any hearings,” said Joyce, R-Bainbridge, who voted against the bill. “People (in Washington, D.C.) don’t understand township governments. It’s lost on them. They were all worried about the cities and ignored the smaller communities.”

Special purpose districts — including those for fire, water and sewer — were not included in the federal funding allocation, according to the Internal Revenue Service. But state and local governments can transfer money to special purpose districts, the agency said.

For example, Newton Falls Joint Fire District Chief Doug Theobald said while the district did not directly receive any funds, Newton Township gave $22,000 to the district, which was used to purchase an automatic CPR device for the paramedics to have for patients.

Theobald said he was informed by Newton Falls village that it plans to give the district funds when the village receives its next round of COVID-19 relief funds.

“What I learned was that fire districts were not eligible for the funds. The villages, cities and townships received the funds and were not obligated to give any to the fire districts,” he said.

Theobald said what upset him was how some area communities spent the pandemic relief funds, including one purchasing an LED sign to announce when meetings were being held.

While he appreciates the help received locally, it is the state officials’ inaction that Theobald is concerned about.

“We do the same work and provide the same service as a city fire department and to not receive any funds while they do is a total slap in the face. We are being penalized because we are a fire district and they are not,” Theobald said.

NOT A DIME

Western Reserve Joint Fire District Chief Chip Comstock said while the local district which covers the Poland area did not receive any funding even from the local entities, he is aware that some cities, townships and counties did provide some of their relief funds to the fire districts.

“We didn’t receive a dime. I was shocked fire district received no money directly. I know in the first round of funds given to counties they were subdivided to the cities and townships,” he said,

Comstock said some communities received substantial amounts.

He said the district was in the process of looking for an ambulance but Poland Township gave a lot of its money for police expenditures. Comstock said the fire district used 100 percent of its own funds to get an ambulance.

Comstock also questions why state officials did not see the need for fire districts to receive funds, since the firefighters and paramedics were on the front lines throughout the pandemic.

He said one issue that upset him is how some communities that received COVID-19 relief funding used it for certain things that were questionable.

“The issue I have is one community used their funds for cameras for their park, and said it was to help keep track of how the virus was being spread in addition to security. The officials said the cameras would help them trace how the virus is spread. Another community used their funds for work on extending the bike trail. I know the funds were to help local communities and local businesses but in my opinion there was a lot of misspent money and questionable expenses. Some communities reimbursed themselves,” Comstock said.

He did agree other communities used the funds properly for putting up Plexiglas and touch-free restrooms at workplaces and placing meetings online for public viewing.

POLICE FIRST

John Morris, clerk for the Eagle Joint Fire District in Hubbard, said the district did not receive any COVID-19 funds from either Hubbard city or Hubbard Township.

“The board was informed that the joint fire districts are not eligible for the funds but I am not sure what legislation determined this,” Morris said.

Morris said the only way the fire district could receive any dollars would be to receive the funds from Hubbard city or Hubbard Township. “Because we are our own separate tax entity we are not eligible to receive it on our own like a city fire department would,” he said.

Morris said he was aware that Hubbard Township trustees decided to use much of their funds for the police department, which had some issues last year.

Concerns were raised in late 2019 that the department might have to cease operations, with the township opting for another agency for its police protection. But now the department has become more solvent because of several police administrative positions staying unfilled after retirements, receipt of grants for bulletproof vests and other police items, plus passage of a 1.75-mill renewal levy.

“I am sure the Hubbard Township residents would not want funds to the fire district until the situation with the police department was addressed first,” he said.

Morris said the district received funds from workers compensation to help it.

A representative from both the city and the township serves on the joint fire district board but there has been no word on plans by either entity on funds for the district, Morris said.

Staff writer David Skolnick contributed to this report.

bcoupland@tribtoday.com

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