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Firefighter tuition reimbursement under fire



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March 23, 2011 - Brandon Twp.- The township board unanimously approved the 2011 full-time firefighter benefits Monday night. However, the tuition reimbursement benefit offered to firefighters for the past 10 years may soon be a thing of the past.

Supervisor Kathy Thurman said the board is considering adopting a moratorium on tuition reimbursement for firefighters, who currently are eligible for annual reimbursement of $500 (part-time) or $1,000 (full-time) for college tuition expenses. The moratorium would also apply to the $300 tuition reimbursement benefit offered to township employees. Thurman said the issue will likely be brought back to the board at the next regularly scheduled board meeting, set for 7:30 p.m., April 4 at the township offices, 395 Mill St.

"I'm disappointed that they are considering taking away the tuition reimbursement because it's such a small amount to say, one, 'We appreciate what you're doing' and two, 'We think that education is important,'" said Fire Chief David Kwapis.

The tuition reimbursement for firefighters can be used toward paramedic firefighting education and to increase the skillset of firefighters. Some general education classes may be taken also, because the benefit doesn't specify which classes must be taken and those classes might also be required for a degree. Firefighter, paramedic, and other specialized training courses is separate from tuition reimbursement, which is used for college courses.

In ten years of offering the tuition benefit, the most that has been reimbursed in any one year was $2,100, said Kwapis.

Chris Fisher, the administrative assistant at the Brandon Fire Department and 21-year employee, received the full $1,000 tuition reimbursement last year as she pursues an administration degree that will help her do her job at the fire department.

Fisher said she understands that the township is trying to save money and make cuts, but is disappointed that township officials have had no dialogue with the employees regarding the tuition benefit or other possible cuts.

"Employees haven't had a say in what they think is important and what is not," she said. "They weren't given the opportunity."

In addressing the board at their March 21 meeting, Fisher said the boardmembers need to educate themselves on the Fire Board Authority and its purpose. She added that the board hadn't asked the right questions and need to dig deeper.

The Fire Board Authority, according to a joint operating agreement between the township, Village of Ortonville, and the fire department, "oversees and is responsible for establishing, hiring, promotion, personnel, financial, and purchasing policies and procedures for the Brandon Fire Department on behalf of the township and village." The authority also reviews the annual BFD budget prepared by the chief and forwards recommendations to the township and village officials for their review and approval.

The four-member Fire Board Authority currently consists of Thurman, Township Trustee Tom Stowell, Ortonville Village Manager Larry Brown and Village Councilmember Debbie Baker. The FBA had a split vote in January over whether to keep the tuition reimbursement, with Brown and Thurman voting against keeping it, and Stowell and Baker voting in favor of keeping it. The split vote prompted discussion at the recent township board meeting that a fifth member of the Fire Board Authority may be needed.

The next meeeting of the Fire Board Authority is set for 8 a.m., April 14, at Station #1, 53 South St.

The Ortonville Village Council will vote on the 2011 firefighter benefits at their next meeting, set for 7 p.m., March 28, at the township offices, 395 Mill St.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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