The assistant chief of the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District said Wednesday that although he is unhappy with the fire board’s decision Tuesday to keep chief Bradley George, residents served by Paint Creek can expect quality service to continue.
Chad Hamilton, assistant fire chief, said residents “can expect the same service.” He said no services are being cut and, in fact, more full-timers have been hired, including six medics coming on full-time from the part-time ranks, ensuring continuity in regard to familiarity with the district.
Hamilton, whose testimony at a hearing on Tuesday was critical of George, said he will work with the board and employees over the next 30 days to determine “what’s the next step.” He said he has not decided whether he will remain with the department long-term, but promised to maintain professionalism and quality service with the department while he is there.
“No services or staffing are going to be cut,” he said.
But Hamilton expressed disappointment with the board. He said that although the board suspended George for 30 days without pay and promised more oversight in the future, “they don’t even know the stipulations” that they pledged to enact when George returns.
When George was abruptly suspended in early July, the reasons for the action were cloaked in secrecy, the facts not emerging until a hearing Tuesday to determine his fate.
In the vacuum left by the lack of official details, several rumors swirled among firefighters and others, including one suggesting that unpaid overtime to part-time firefighters might amount to several hundred thousand dollars. While overtime pay ended up being an issue, testimony Tuesday indicated that the overtime pay in question was in the $60,000 to $80,000 range.
Officially, the Paint Creek board found validity to charges against George of malfeasance, gross negligence, and failure to show good behavior. But the board defeated a motion to terminate the chief by a narrow 5-4 vote, instead following up with a unanimous vote to suspend George for 30 days without pay.
Following the hearing, George declined to comment, but his attorney, Robert Judkins, said, “I think the board made a careful and well thought-out decision.”
On Wednesday, Dan Mathews, president of the board and one of the five members who voted against terminating George, said many of the initial complaints about the chief were “nit-picking.”
Mathews said that when George was on vacation in early July, some employees approached board members with complaints about the chief and asked that he be fired.
“I said, ‘You can’t fire a man who is on vacation. You need to let him defend himself,’” said Mathews. He said some initial complaints about equipment not being properly maintained or repaired turned out to be untrue after George had a chance to respond.
“It wasn’t a big deal after we heard an explanation from Bradley,” said Mathews. “Everything was certified.”
He said the ladder truck that belongs to Hillsboro needs $20,000 worth of work. He said one repair shop said “the truck is so old it’s not worth repairing.” He said Paint Creek’s own ladder truck has been moved to Hillsboro in the meantime.
Regarding the overtime pay, Mathews said he did not know yet how many firefighters might be eligible for back pay, although he said they were all part-timers.
“I don’t have a total on the people yet,” he said.
Mathews said Paint Creek has “a great assistant chief” in Hamilton, and he hopes Hamilton and George can work past their differences.
He said that while George is on 30 days leave, board members will check in frequently with the department to make sure it is operating smoothly.
In a decision well documented and often debated, the city of Hillsboro disbanded its own fire department, Hillsboro Fire & Rescue, in favor of coverage by Paint Creek, coverage which began in January of 2014. Unlike the townships covered by Paint Creek, Hillsboro is not a member of the district, but rather has a contractual relationship calling for a flat fee of about $554,000 per year.
Lee Koogler, president of Hillsboro City Council, represents the city on the board as a non-voting member. He said Wednesday that his goal is to protect the city’s interests “whether Bradley or someone else is chief.”
Koogler said it is a concern that overtime should have been paid but wasn’t. But he said the board will incur no fines or penalties, and the costs to the district will be no higher than if the money had been paid in the first place.
“But it’s money that should have been paid,” he said.
Board members who voted to terminate George as chief could not immediately be reached Wednesday.
Mayor Drew Hastings said Wednesday that the events surrounding the fire chief are an example of why he wanted Hillsboro out of the business of maintaining a fire department.
“Because we’re not involved in the day-to-day operation, we aren’t subject to fluctuations in the expenses, or in the politics of it, or how the wind blows,” he said.
“Our exposure is absolutely nothing,” he said, comparing Hillsboro’s contract with Paint Creek to purchasing an airline ticket for a fixed price.
“When you buy an airline ticket for $500, it doesn’t matter if the price of fuel quadruples after that, you still just pay $500,” said Hastings.
The mayor said, “Every organization goes through growing pains. I absolutely have faith that no matter what, they’ll make sure everyone has smooth and seamless coverage, and keep making it the great district it is.”
Hastings’ opponent in this year’s mayoral race, Pam Limes, was among residents who fought to prevent dissolving Hillsboro Fire & Rescue. But she said Wednesday that she wants Paint Creek to be a successful fire district.
“I trust that the Paint Creek fire board, after a thoughtful review, came to a fair decision,” said Limes.
She said that whether recent events involving the chief reveal deeper problems with Paint Creek’s financial operation, or offer evidence that the city should have maintained its own fire department, are not issues for her.
“That issue is kind of over for me,” she said. “We have Paint Creek, and I want them to do well.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.