COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3102 President Chad Witt (left) and Three Rivers Mayor Tom Lowry (far right) argue during Tuesday's Three Rivers City Commission meeting about comments Lowry made about ambulance service at a recent meeting that Witt took objection to during his public comment Tuesday.

Mayor, union president spar over ambulance comments

THREE RIVERS — Tensions rose between Three Rivers Mayor Tom Lowry and a local union leader following a public comment at Tuesday’s Three Rivers City Commission meeting.

Lowry and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3102 President Chad Witt, a Three Rivers Fire Department firefighter, got into a verbal spat following Witt’s public comment, which centered on comments made by Lowry during the May 10 city commission meeting regarding ambulance service and the presence of Beacon Health ambulances making transfers from Three Rivers Health.

During the May 10 meeting, which discussed ambulance rates for the city amid other budgetary items, Lowry expressed concern about Beacon Health bringing in its own ambulance service for hospital transfers, as well as the issue of some current EMS personnel joining Beacon, and what it could mean for the future of the city’s ambulance service.

“I think, at least for the firefighters, they’re all working for Beacon, which helps destroy us. We’ve had so many firefighters tell [Joe Bippus] and Paul [Schoon, fire chief] that they’ll moonlight and staff that damn Beacon ambulance, which helps destroy us, because Beacon gets the revenue from those transfers,” Lowry said during that meeting. “We have to acknowledge that we could lose this service in a year or two. If we lose 10 to 20 percent or more in transfer revenues, we’re screwed. We can’t let our own people help destroy us.”

In his public comment Tuesday, Witt said it “sickens me” that the city is “blaming other entities and our members” as to why firefighters and EMS personnel are leaving the Three Rivers Fire Department.

“The problem we’re experiencing is under our roof. It’s not Beacon, it’s not the City of Sturgis or Portage, it’s us,” Witt said. “I’m saddened by the fact that other agencies are finding means to retain employees and to recruit employees and we’re just hoping to fill a void.”

Witt said while money raised from ambulance fees has yielded gains to the general fund, he said he didn’t understand why the city claims the department is “going broke.”

“We currently don’t understand how the mayor and leadership can say they’re going broke when we have $199,000 going towards an enterprise service fee,” Witt said. “The closest comparable fee is Sturgis, and their fee is less than $20,000 a year.”

Witt mentioned the loss of both former Fire Chief Jeff Bloomfield, Police Chief Tom Bringman and three full-time Three Rivers Fire Department staff, claiming it was due to “how the current administration is handling recruitment and retainment.” He said the situation is about “feeling more appreciated” and “to not be thought of as a number on a piece of paper.”

“The whole time through COVID, we answered every call for service. We lived in campers in the parking lot when we were away from our families for extended periods of time. We didn’t know at that time how sick we’d get if we did get sick,” Witt said.

He then called out Lowry for his comments.

“To hear the mayor say that we are the issue and that moonlighting with Beacon will destroy the fire department is so apparently wrong it’s disturbing to us,” Witt said. “We are not the only ones in the city that moonlight – and yes, we can moonlight and make as much as you would on a normal overtime shift – our question is why has no one stood up and shown any appreciation for us guys? This is not hard to solve; you pay us competitive wages and let’s go back to doing the business of the fire department, lessen the overhead fee, or at least show the public the line item to what it’s being charged to. Joe, Cathy and the mayor are the ones who are choosing this, not us, not the fire department.”

Witt claimed Beacon is only doing transfers “that we can’t get to,” and “have been doing more due to the fact we have had more people gone and have been running short-staffed.”

Following the comment, Lowry responded to Witt, saying the union chief “has no knowledge of the history” of the department, mentioning his efforts in 1995 to “save” the department.

“This is my passion, this department. You have no idea what you just said to me,” Lowry said. “For you to misrepresent the words I uttered at the last meeting means you heard it thirdhand. I wish you would have the balls to come and talk to me. Next time you have a beef with me and you want to hear my words and the intent of my words, come and talk to me please, because you totally misrepresented what I said. I knew what I intended to say.”

The two then went back and forth for the next minute.

“It doesn’t matter what you intended to say,” Witt said.

“Bottom line is, next time, grow a pair and come and talk to me,” Lowry said.

“I’m here now talking to you,” Witt said. “I’ve been told I’m not allowed to come in here and come to these meetings and address this to people. I had to call our attorney just to figure out that I have permission to get up here and talk with you guys.”

“You have every right to talk to us,” Lowry said.

“I’ve been told by them, by Joe, by everybody, that I don’t have the right to come up here. I had to call our attorney and pay a fee to figure that out,” Witt said. “We are so scared to come up here and talk to anybody.”

“You have no idea how much, you can’t-“ Lowry said.

“Literally, I’m trying the hardest to do everything I can to keep this place going. I have literally broken my neck for this place. I have gotten hurt in the line of duty,” Witt said. “I don’t work anywhere else, I have dedicated myself to this place. You can’t get up here and make accusations and stuff like that. No one’s ever come to us.”

“You totally missed what I was trying to say,” Lowry said, asking Witt to talk with him privately as his five minutes for public comment were up.

In a statement to the Commercial-News Wednesday, Lowry apologized for his reaction to the situation.

“I crossed the line and I publicly apologized to Chad for what I said," Lowry said.

The Commercial-News reached out to Witt and Local 3102 for comment and clarification on the issues presented during Tuesday’s meeting, but did not receive a response back from either before Wednesday night.

In a written statement Wednesday, the Three Rivers Fire Department wrote the union is currently working under a three-year collective bargaining agreement that was negotiated “less than one year ago,” and that city administration has been meeting with union representatives over the last few months to resolve some of the issues and concerns of the union.

“The City Administration has prepared a few staffing plans and wage increase offers in effort to mitigate the memberships concerns and the union has declined each of them,” the statement read. “The City Administration recognizes the importance of retaining quality staff and the long-term cost of employee turnover. The City has long supported the Three Rivers Fire Department and our personnel, and we are willing to continue to meet with the union to find a viable solution that will work for all parties in the long term.”

In other business…

  • Commissioners approved employee appreciation pay for city employees. The city will give those still employed by the city on May 31 a 5 percent bonus for all regular full-time employees, both union and non-union, and a $300 flat bonus for all regular part-time union and non-union employees, as well as any on-call fire personnel, crossing guard or auxiliary officer who worked more than 25 hours year to date in the fiscal year. The total cost is $164,756, and will come out of the city’s fund balance.
  • Commissioners approved user fee ordinance updates, which include the 7 percent increase in ambulance fees and 3 percent increase water and sewer service fees.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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