HAZELWOOD, Mo. – Life-saving health screenings have been cut from the Robertson Fire Protection District (RFPD) budget this year after the City of Hazelwood refuses to pay the district for at least a year of service.
It is a battle that has been going on in Hazelwood for years, and after the claims made by members of the Hazelwood City Council at this week’s council meeting, RFPD firefighters are speaking out.
There has been a lot of finger-pointing over who is to blame for the current situation in Hazelwood. Both sides say the other has not been willing to negotiate or compromise.
Despite the ongoing dispute, the men and women of the RFPD say they have continued to offer their Hazelwood and Bridgeton residents quality service, even though behind the scenes, they are having to miss out on crucial services themselves.
"These men and women have risked their lives for people, they’ve saved people’s lives, they’ve brought people back, they’ve delivered babies on the highway," said Capt. Jason Crady, shop steward for the RFPD.
Since the City of Hazelwood is refusing to pay the district for its services in 2017, Crady said the district has had to cut corners to make its reserves last. One of the cuts was on annual health screenings that have saved lives.
“In the last couple years, they’ve caught three cancers that have been proven to be significantly elevated in firefighters,” Crady said.
Thankfully, those employees were all treated and have since returned to the front lines of fighting fires. However, last weekend the department was once again reminded how fragile life is and how crucial the annual screenings are.
Crady said a firefighter suffered a "major medical emergency" October 13 while on a call. He wonders if the annual health screening would have detected the problem. Fortunately, that firefighter is expected to be okay.
In addition, the district has had to pass on training sessions, which are important for keeping up with certifications and career advancement. Pensions have also taken a hit.
In a district with historically high retention, morale is being tested.
“We’ve had employees asking if they should be looking for other jobs,” Crady said.
If the standoff with the city continues, that may be the result. The district says it is out of money, having spent the last of its reserves this week. If the situation is not resolved, the district may be forced to cut jobs and lay off employees by May.
According to Hazelwood City Manager Matt Zimmerman, the city terminated its agreement with the RFPD in December 2017. In August, the City Council approved a plan for the city fire department to take over fire services for Hazelwood residents who live in the RFPD territory.
"This is our geographical service area, it’s not theirs," said Crady, adding the RFPD was servicing the area long before the Hazelwood annexation. "They can’t legally just come into your house because they like your house better.”
Hazelwood Mayor Matthew Robinson said RFPD's rates have gone up excessively. The city does not plan to pay the RFPD for services rendered in 2017, however, RFPD continues to service its Hazelwood residents and businesses today.
According to Zimmerman, if Hazelwood is forced to pay RFPD’s rates, the city will be bankrupt in three years, and city services like policing, street maintenance, snow removal, and parks programs will be at risk.
The city plans to collect signatures in hopes of getting this issue on the April ballot. If residents choose to stay with the RFPD, Robinson said he will seek out a way to make the residents pay the difference.
Meanwhile, the two groups will continue to battle over a breach of contract in St. Louis County Court.