Richmond County rejects meeting with Port Hawkesbury over fire service

Photo by Jake Boudrot -- A fire in a wood chip silo at the Port Hawkesbury Paper mill in Point Tupper on June 20, 2019 did not affect production at the region’s largest employer.

STRAIT AREA: Richmond County officials have rejected a meeting with Port Hawkesbury representatives to find a solution to their conflict over fire service for the Point Tupper area.

On June 23, the Municipality of the County of Richmond issued a press release that it decided to go with other options for fire service protection in an area of the municipality covering the Point Tupper Industrial Park.

In 2019, the municipality and the town entered into a one-year fire protection agreement at a cost of $49,645 for the 12 month period ending July 14, 2020.

“This amount was a 100 per cent increase over the amount previously paid for the same services provided by a neighboring fire department,” according a press release from Richmond County.

The municipality then engaged a consultant to carry out a Fire Services Review, including Point Tupper. The consultant’s report was received on May 15, but due to the complexity of the report and concerns that were raised with the shared services, the municipality sought an extension to the agreement to allow for further review and consultation with stakeholders, including the town.

On June 11, the town submitted a contract to the municipality seeking an additional 50 per cent increase in fees to provide fire protection to the Point Tupper area, which would bring the annual cost to approximately $75,000 per year.

“While the municipality is willing to pay a reasonable fee that reflects the value of the service provided, considering there are fewer than three calls on average annually to the Point Tupper area, it is not willing to fund the town’s fire department when there are numerous fire departments in Richmond County in dire need of basic equipment, vehicles and upgrades to inadequate facilities,” the municipality said in its statement.

Port Hawkesbury Town Council discussed the matter at its committee-of-the-whole meeting on June 24, then issued a press release two days later.

On June 23, the town received a letter from Richmond County that they would be seeking other fire departments to assume responsibilities after July 15.

 “The Richmond County council decision was disappointing, done without consultation or discussion with the town, and is potentially damaging to the collaborative relationship that has been developed over the past four years,” said Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton.

The town asserts that the Port Hawkesbury Volunteer Fire Department is the natural responding agency to the Point Tupper area because of its proximity, quick response time, large volunteer base, training, and equipment.

“We have provided the service to the families and businesses of Point Tupper for decades,” Curtis Doucet, Port Hawkesbury Volunteer Fire Department Chief states. “We are proud of our record and treat the area as our own. It is disappointing to think that Richmond County Council does not appreciate the work that we have done.”

According to Port Hawkesbury, response times from another fire department providing this service to Point Tupper will be significantly lengthened and they expect that Port Hawkesbury and other neighboring departments will be called upon.

“It is almost incomprehensible to believe that the basic provision of adequate fire protection for the Strait region’s most valuable industrial asset – which is the responsibility of the of the Municipality of the County of Richmond for which they receive more than $3.5 million in tax revenues – will rest heavily on the good will of the volunteers from the Port Hawkesbury Volunteer Fire Department and its neighbours under mutual aid.”

Noting that the provision of fire services for the Point Tupper area has been an “ongoing issue for a number of years,” the town said the cost-sharing model is fair.

“The cost of providing these services is based on sharing the actual cost among the homeowners, businesses and industries from both municipalities in a now expanded service area in accordance with a shared service model,” the town’s press release stated. “The model was developed cooperatively among senior municipal staff working together from both municipalities…”

Port Hawkesbury’s Chief Administrative Officer, Terry Doyle explained the cost-sharing formula “is more than fair, it is based on standard practices, and is easily audited.”

The town and the mayor reached out to Richmond Warden Brian Marchand for an in-person meeting but their request was rejected by the warden, on behalf of council.

“It is important that we try our best to seek a resolution to this issue so we can ensure Port Tupper is adequately protected and to continue the good work and cooperation between our municipalities going forward,” the mayor added.