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'We need more time' | West Liberty city council races to meet June 3 fire department deadline

West Liberty's volunteer firefighters have alleged the city is "waging a war" on the department and are threatening to end association with the city by early June.

WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — The City of West Liberty is racing to come to a consensus on a proposed agreement regarding the governing of its volunteer fire department before its June 3 deadline.

In April, the West Liberty Volunteer Fire Department presented a memorandum of understanding to the city, asking for a 28E Agency to oversee it, as opposed to city officials. It called for a new governing board comprised of officials appointed by the city, retired volunteers and the West Liberty Rural Fire District.  

Earlier, the department asked the city council to make a decision by May 1, but after a meeting with the mayor just days before the findings were due, the volunteers unanimously voted to extend the city's deadline to June 3. 

If a decision is not reached by that time, the department threatened to end its association with West Liberty. In that case, the volunteers would still provide fire and medical protection to the West Liberty Rural Fire District and the city would receive assistance from nearby towns. 

RELATED: 'An ugly battle' | West Liberty volunteer fire department threatens to break from city

The department sent a letter to West Liberty Mayor Katherine McCullough, City Manager David Haugland, City Clerk Lee Geertz and three members of the city council alleging that the city has micromanaged the department, deliberately stalled attempts to hire EMS personnel and mixed department funds with the city's general account. 

"The city has actively waged a war upon the department through dangerous bureaucratic moves that endanger the community," the letter read. "In addition to making it more difficult for the volunteers to help the community when seconds matter, multiple unfounded grievances have been filed against volunteer members of the department, with the intent to manipulate the process while attempting to cover their tracks." 

The letter also stated the city's actions have made it impossible to continue recruiting volunteers and the department will be without any within the next five years.

"The men and women of the department have made a reasoned - but difficult - decision. These men and women will not continue to volunteer in this environment," the letter said. 

In response, the city said all of the department's allegations were "either wrong or wholly unfounded."

At West Liberty's May 3 city council meeting, council member Dana Dominguez said discussions around the MOU at a previous public safety meeting "didn't get much done." However, she proposed a timeline for the next few weeks in the hopes of reaching an agreement before the department's deadline. 

The council plans to meet during the week of May 9 to collect information, go on a 'fact-finding mission' and reach out to the fire department and rural protection district. That same week, the city also has plans for another public safety meeting. 

Then at the next council meeting on May 17, the city hopes to present its concerns as well as likes pertaining to the 28E proposal. 

"We just need more time to review that and we wanted to set this kind of timeline to make sure we keep moving forward," Dominguez said. 

One volunteer present at Tuesday night's council meeting said the moves were a welcome first step. 

"I know we haven't gotten anything accomplished yet, but just the feeling that I know I've gotten and some other people have gotten is like 'Alright, okay. Just gotta keep working here,'" firefighter Dillon Christensen said. 

Christensen also warned that if the department ends association and the city turns to nearby towns for fire protection, response times will go up - creating a dangerous situation once a fire breaks out, and every second counts. 

"I have a lot of faith in the surrounding departments," Christensen said. "But I'm gonna be honest, it's gonna take more than eight minutes to get here." 

Resident Karen Lathrop told the council she had been getting comments and messages from friends around the state, curious about the city's fire conundrum. 

"I'm disappointed," Lathrop said. "Why is our city not playing nice with our fire department? We are better than this." 

She added the volunteers in West Liberty saved her own house from a fire years ago and cared for her then-5-year-old child when he was burned at a fair. 

"I'm asking you to please vote in favor of the fire department. I trust them with my life and I certainly trust them to run their department," Lathrop said. 

During that same meeting, council members asked for another deadline extension until June 30, saying it would be difficult to get feedback and responses from key players while many farmers are busy with the spring planting season. 

Most of the volunteers in attendance sat silently or said "no" in response. 

"We need more time. We need to make sure that everybody on (the) council is on the same page, and we need to work to get everybody on the same page. And that's just going to take time," Mayor Katherine McCullough said. 

The issues around West Liberty's fire department were swirling during McCullough's campaign. She told News 8 it was her hope to win the election, get into work and "try to fix it quickly."

"And I learned quite quickly - and often the hard way - that's just really not how any of this works," McCullough said. 

There's a lot in the MOU proposal that needs to be hammered out for the sake of both sides, she argued. 

"I don't think anybody would ever want - when presented with a contract - would not want the time and the opportunity to think about it. Especially when it has long-lasting effects on everybody's lives," she said. 

Right now, the city levies tax dollars for public safety, McCullough said. That money, along with fundraisers, funds the department. In the event that the volunteers can't raise enough on their own, the city has the power to levy additional taxes to cover that deficit. 

"Which, if they were their own agency, they wouldn't be able to do because they're not a government agency," McCullough said. "These are just the things we need to explore with the fire department and make sure that they understand. Because we don't want to be back here in two years if something doesn't work out." 

The department said a third of its volunteers have left over the past year due to the ongoing issues with the city. Chief Kirt Sickels said if things continue down the same path, there won't be any volunteers left to protect West Liberty. 

"I'd say it's probably a fair assessment," McCullough said. "I trust the chief, I trust that he's out there trying to recruit and doing what he does. So it's unfortunate." 

As a young mother with two sons, McCullough said the future of West Liberty's protection weighs heavy on her mind. 

"Who knows what can happen! I sleep better knowing that (the department is) there, and I'd like them to stay there. For everybody, it's not just me," she noted. 

The mayor agreed with accusations from volunteers who are frustrated with a lack of communication from the city regarding its issues with the department. 

"It's not necessarily my reasoning. I would choose to be a little more vocal and I think we're going to work towards that," McCullough said. 

However, she denied claims of misappropriated funds, saying the city has gone through several audits and found no signs of fraud. 

"I do not believe that there has been misappropriation of funds," she said. "I don't believe that there has been illegal use of donations or anything like that. And the audits have shown that over and over and over again." 

She declined to comment on the accusation of hiring attempts being purposely stalled, saying she wasn't sure of the full timeline.

"I personally am not at a war with anybody. I'm trying to fix it. And I think council wants to fix it," McCullough said. But she also said reaching a decision by June 3 would be a challenge. 

"I would like until the end of June just given everything and given my personal life. Like I work two jobs, I'm a single mom ... and I don't mind doing it, I signed up for it," she said. "(But) life happens, and when you set arbitrary deadlines on things like this, it makes it difficult. And I understand why they're upset, but I'm hoping that we can do what we need to do to be able to extend this and get it done with everybody involved." 

No decision on the 28E proposal was made during Tuesday's council meeting. One council member floated the idea of creating a counter-agreement, but it's unclear what that would contain or if it would be ready for consideration by June.

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