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Big Grove, Newport and Cedar townships, Solon sign service agency charter

Fire station and equipment to be deeded over
Cedar Township Trustee Dan Erenberger and Assistant County Attorney Susan Nehring look on as Cedar Township Trustee Chair Jerry Serbousek prepares to sign a new fire agency charter at a special meeting of the Solon City Council June 6. (photo by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– On the surface, it will appear as if the Solon volunteer fire department is operating as usual.
Behind the scenes, however, there will have been some major changes.
At the conclusion of a special city council meeting June 6, representatives of the City of Solon and of Big Grove, Newport and Cedar townships signed a charter agreement to create a new fire service agency.
The Solon Tri-Township Emergency Response Agency will in turn establish, by resolution, the Solon Tri-Township Fire Department and oversee its operation beginning July 1.
It’s a process the city and townships have been working on since September after a state audit revealed muddied bookkeeping relationships between the Tri-Township Fire Department and its benevolent association. The report also found there was no evidence of the fire department’s actual creation as an organization.
And while the signing of the new charter goes a long way to cleaning up the issues unearthed by the audit, there’s still a lot of work to do.
A four-member board of directors will manage the new fire service agency, with one representative and an alternate appointed by each of the entities. The board members will be responsible for developing further policies and procedures for the agency, and they gathered to begin those discussions after the June 6 special council meeting.
Another board meeting is expected June 28, where the resolution officially creating the fire department will be considered.
Under the new charter, the current fire station building, as well as the department’s vehicles and equipment, will be deeded over to the new agency, although the City of Solon will maintain an option to repurchase the building if it ceases to be used for firefighting or emergency services.
The document also calls for all the entities to share the costs of operation “as fairly as possible commensurate with the number of people served.” The three townships agreed under the charter to continue levying at the maximum rate allowed for fire protection services, while the city will make its appropriation by multiplying its assessed valuation by the township rate.

“I think we all wanted the same things,” said city council member Mark Prentice, who will serve as the city’s representative on the agency board. “It’s just a mountain of paperwork and a lot of details.”
Dale Snipes will serve as the city’s alternate.
A series of special meetings were held jointly between the city and the townships over the last seven months, including a November consultation with George Oster, former Executive Officer for the Iowa State University Extension’s Fire Service Institute. Oster reviewed the state audit and provided recommendations about structuring the organization and options for moving ahead.
The city also consulted with its independent auditor and its city attorney while the townships requested the assistance of the Johnson County Attorney’s Office.
Assistant County Attorney Susan Nehring, who took the lead in shepherding the officials through the process of creating the new charter, said all of the groups wanted to make sure everyone was on board before proceeding.
“There was a lot of discussion to try to get to an agreement that all four entities were comfortable with,” she said. “The cooperation and commitment of all the four entities and the firefighters was really impressive. They spent a lot of time working on this. I was really impressed by the amount of effort that they were willing to put in to move this forward.”
Jerry Serbousek, chair of the Cedar Township trustees, said the group benefited greatly from Oster’s visit and Nehring’s guidance.
“We were up against a pretty tight timeline here to get it done by July 1,” Serbousek said. “I think that was helpful to get the ball rolling and get everyone on the same page.”
He reported there were no major disputes between the townships and the city.
“The townships owned all the equipment and the city owned the building, so we just had to work out the legalities,” Serbousek said.
According to Prentice, all those involved worked well together to create one agency that would be responsible for the department’s operations.
“They (the townships) owned the equipment, the city owned the building, the firefighters themselves were almost independent contractors, kind of,” Prentice said. “It brings it all under one roof really so that we have this one agency that manages and all entities are represented equally.”
Nehring said under current arrangement, the city and townships were each paying expenses separately.
“Now the whole budgeting process will come under that one agency,” she said.
The City of Solon Volunteer Fire Department and the Tri-Township Fire Department currently operate as a single entity under a 28E agreement between the city and Big Grove, Cedar, and Newport townships.
But that 28E agreement, originally written in 1999, was never officially recorded at the county or state level,
The Tri-Township Fire Department, which has its own separate bank account and meets quarterly to review its finances, writes checks for operating expenses, but the City of Solon is directly responsible for building-related expenses and for providing insurance, utilities, vehicle maintenance and other costs associated with upkeep of the fire station building.
“The main concern was doing what the state deemed to be necessary in order to bring everybody in line with what the auditor thought was proper financial accounting,” Prentice said.

In September, State Auditor Mary Mosiman issued a report reviewing accounts and transactions of the City of Solon Volunteer Fire Department, the Tri-Township Fire Department, and the Solon Firefighters Benevolent Association (a separately organized group to benefit firefighters) for the period Jan. 1, 2011, through May 6, 2014.
According to the report, $66,183.17 in expenses were not accompanied by supporting documents, while another $1,374.37 were classified as improper disbursements, including purchases of alcohol, a gift card, and late fees and interest from credit cards.
The report also called into question the public benefit derived from some expenses, including an annual scholarship, memorials, flowers and member appreciation events that included the purchase of alcohol.
Those findings were partially based on the state’s assertion that funds collected by the benevolent association through fundraisers should not be considered private.
The report noted the fire department had two separate checking accounts: one for the benevolent association and one for “Solon Firefighters,” but both were controlled by one person.
The department had a credit card account with multiple cards. Charges on the cards were paid from both checking accounts, and it was unclear how charges were allocated between the two, the report stated.
Creating a single department under a single agency is expected to go a long way toward separating the public fire agency funds from the association’s private funds.
“There still will be an association involved with just the firefighters that essentially allows them to do the things that they have done in the past, just in a manner that is more consistent with what the auditor would deem appropriate,” Prentice said.
An appendix to the charter acknowledges an existing lease between the city and the firefighters’ association for the use of the fire station’s basement. That lease will continue, but will be transferred to the fire agency along with the building.
The name of the group will be changed from “Solon Firefighters Benevolent Association” to “Solon Firefighters Association” and will be operated independently of the agency.
In addition, Nehring said, a further delineation will be outlined as part of the policies and procedures to identify whether contributions are intended for the agency or the firefighters.
“I think it will prevent any kind of confusion about where those funds are going,” she said.
Prentice agreed, noting the clear separation of the two groups should provide a distinct line between donations for the fire agency and those designed to benefit the firefighters.
“You don’t want to be co-mingling those funds,” he said.

Budgets will be the responsibility of the board, but overseeing the operating expenses of the agency will be its treasurer and an appointed clerk.
According to Prentice, the agency will contract with the city for the clerical services of Solon City Clerk Susie Siddell, a move Nehring said would give Solon some direct oversight over the finances.
The appendix of the charter also commits the four government bodies to make up to $500,000 in improvements to the existing fire station prior to July 1, 2021.
The City of Solon will pay 30 percent of the cost, according to the agreement, but in five annual installments.
“There was definitely agreement that improvements needed to be made, but the details of that, of how much and what obligations and timing and all of that, those were definitely some issues that took some time to sort through,” Nehring said.
Throughout the process, she said, cooperation continued.
“I was really quite impressed with the dedication of all the entities to doing the right thing for the fire department,” she said. “That seemed to be the over-arching concern at all times.”
Prentice agreed.
“I’d like residents to know they can trust that fire protection is going to be at the very best we can possibly give as far as the community and that we’re working together as we have in the past, just with this new agency set up to manage the operation.
“Everybody’s really dedicated to having a good fire department, and that’s the main goal,” he said.
Serbousek said no one will likely even notice a change in the department under the new agency.
“Everybody can still expect great service from the Solon Tri-Township Fire Department,” he noted.