A plea to allow “on duty” Belton firefighters to collect money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association has ended up in court.
By BETHANY BASHIOUM
Special to The Star
Firefighters have obtained a temporary restraining order against the city of Belton that will allow on-duty firefighters to collect funds for their annual “Fill the Boot” fundraiser at Missouri 58 and Route Y in Belton through the first half of the Labor Day weekend.
City leaders in Belton are claiming it is illegal for firefighters to be paid while raising money for charity, citing a Missouri attorney general’s opinion from 1969.
Cass County Presiding Circuit Judge Bill Collins granted the order last week to last through the end of the month, which will allow firefighters to collect funds while on duty Friday and Saturday. The fund-raiser was scheduled to run through Monday.
“There are so many charitable things that our city does and if they take the stance against us, they’re going to have to take the stance against everything,” Fire Capt. Steve Kratofil said.
Belton firefighters have been doing the “boot block” for the Muscular Dystrophy Association while “on-the-clock” since 1972, and they believe the city’s stance is political.
The City Council approved Kratofil’s request in April for the firefighters’ on-duty participation in the same manner it has for decades.
Union leaders allege that the city is retaliating in response to budget negotiations earlier this year. The city had proposed eliminating more than a dozen public safety positions, but cuts in the firefighter ranks had to be negotiated with the union.
Ultimately, five positions in the fire department were left vacant, but no one was laid off.
After he thought things had cooled down, Kratofil was put on the spot at a July council meeting and was told that he would need to get special permission for firefighters to be on the clock during the fundraiser, citing legal advice brought forth by City Attorney Aaron March.
City leaders say that the Missouri Constitution would prohibit the city from paying the firefighters for doing work that uniquely and exclusively benefits the MDA, and that the City Council cannot authorize payment for this work without finding there is a legitimate city service being performed.
Kratofil was denied permission and has been fighting the decision since.
“The firefighters had discussed giving up their raises and changing other areas of their contract but I would not allow it because the city manager and the assistant manager failed to address the other areas where we had redundancy,” Mike Cambiano, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 42, told the council earlier this month.
Cambiano, who pursued the restraining order, said he initially had hoped resolve the bootblock issue quietly.
But instead, the topic has brought heated and passionate discussion to a number of Belton City Council meetings in the last two months, with council members, union supporters and citizens weighing in.
“We’re after what is right and we want what is best for our constituents,” said Belton Mayor Jeff Davis said Monday, “and we don’t think our taxpayers should be paying and picking one charity over any other.”
Since the uproar, firefighters have committed to doing the fund-raiser whether they got paid or not. They also say emergency response times won’t be affected by firefighters collecting funds.
“The danger of doing off-duty is primarily safety. When it is voluntary, there have been cases across the country where firefighters have been robbed,” said Local 42 Spokesman Adam James. “An impersonator can get a hold of a T-shirt or boot and say, ‘I’m a firefighter collecting money.’ We don’t want that situation to occur.”
In Belton, the MDA directly supports 12 families, and about 18 others throughout Cass County.
“You’re affecting our ability to serve these kids and that’s not something we’re willing to accept,” Cambiano said.
The firefighters’ union was back in court with the city’s attorneys on Monday to ask Judge Michael Wagner to see if a preliminary injunction would be issued, or if he would extend Collins’ restraining order through Monday to cover the entire fund-raiser.
In a brief hearing, Wagner said he was not comfortable in making a decision until he was presented with evidence, but would uphold the restraining order in effect through the end of the August.
Wagner is expected to schedule an evidentiary hearing in the case, but noted he doesn’t foresee it taking place before the scheduled fundraiser.
“At this point in time we’re going to push all of our efforts toward Friday and Saturday while we have the restraining order in place so we can get the money collected from the citizens,” James said.
Belton residents are also organizing their own efforts to help the MDA this weekend.
A community event, “Boots and BBQ,” has been scheduled to support the Belton Fire Department in collecting funds for the MDA. The event will be from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at the HeartNHand L.I.F.T. Campus, 200 B St., Belton.