The Belton City Hall annex was crowded tonight as concerned citizens, many wearing T-shirts reading “Firefighters Care About Kids,” filled the room for the regular Council meeting.
Captain Steve Kratofil, Belton, appeared before the Council on July 9 as representative for Local 42, IAFF (International Association of Firefighters), to request that on-duty firefighters work a boot block to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association over Labor Day weekend. The boot block itself had been previously approved on April 9. However, that July evening, a motion was made for approval, but no councilman seconded the motion and therefore no vote was taken.
City Manager Ron Trivitt released a statement in response to the situation, saying, “The City Council was also informed of a City Attorney’s opinion that Article 6, Section 25 of the Missouri Constitution would prevent the City from paying the firefighters for doing work that uniquely and exclusively benefits MDA. This position is confirmed in Attorney General Opinion No. 35-69. The City Attorney stated that the City Council cannot authorize payment for this work without finding there is a legitimate City service being performed.”
During the July meeting, Trivitt did not deny that the cause was worthwhile, but emphasized, “The only question is a policy question about whether the City should pay employees to raise funds for the charity while they’re on duty. It’s both a legal question and a policy question.”
Councilmen Justin Neff, Chet Trutzel, and Everett Loughridge were absent from that meeting last month, but the Council was fully present tonight. Kratofil reappeared before Council along with Tracey Truitt, an MDA representative, and Mike Cambiano, President of Local 42.
Truitt argued that this matter is discretionary for the Council to decide, and approval would not be not illegal. “When I say it’s in your discretion, it means it’s in your power to approve it or disapprove it, so that’s entirely up to you guys.”
He also said that the boot block is a visible example of tax dollars at work, and that it is good for people to see the firefighters out in the community. He added that the firefighters are still available to respond to calls that come in.
Cambiano said that Belton firefighters are among the highest money-raising department in Local 42 and that the International Association also supports on-duty fundraising.
“I will tell you that, especially in your city, you have a lot of people that volunteer their time off-duty.” He explained that many firefighters and their families volunteer “till the wee hours of the morning, collecting and organizing the funds.”
Cambiano also stated that they have provided the City with four legal opinions which declare that the Attorney General ruling “does not apply to this situation.”
He said that the City has a right to direct the work for the boot block to be on-duty or off-duty. “We would like you to take that step. We would like you to own it. It’s my opinion—my humble opinion—that this is retaliation, and that you’re using this situation to retaliate against these firefighters and their abilities to serve the community.”
Another part of Cambiano’s argument was that, this spring, the fire department cut five positions and picked up the extra work, saving the City “over $411,000 a year.”
“The firefighters had discussed giving up their raises and changing other areas of their contract. I would not allow it, because the city manager and the assistant city manager failed to address the other areas where we had redundancy and we could have made cuts that would not affect public safety. It’s a shame that a union has to worry about public safety, but we do.”
City Manager Ron Trivitt repeated what the Council and City staff have emphasized from the beginning, saying, “The question is on-duty city people working for the benefit of the charity and whether or not that violates the Missouri Constitution.”
The City staff added that the City of Belton consulted with other cities, and only two out of twelve respondents said that on-duty firefighters do the boot block in their respective cities.
Councilmember Everett Loughridge walked out on the meeting after expressing discomfort with the accusation that the Council was retaliating. “I am not retaliating,” he said.
A resounding opinion from the guest speakers and those present in the audience was a call for the Council to vote on the issue tonight.
“If you don’t want us to boot block on duty, I want you to take the vote to do it,” said Cambiano.
The Council heard those who made personal appearances and made responses, but did not vote on the item.