WATERTOWN The citys firefighters benevolent association spent more than $300,000 over five years on parties, cable television, golf dues and other items through a little-known fund it receives from out-of-state insurance companies.
The Watertown Firefighters Benevolent Association annually receives the 2 percent tax from out-of-state and foreign insurance companies on premiums written for insurance loss on damage caused by fires.
In existence for more than a century, the Foreign Fire Tax program is set by state insurance law and requires the companies to pay the tax. Volunteer and paid fire departments throughout the state receive funds from insurance companies and use them for the same type of purposes, said Peter Rose, vice president of firefighters benevolent association.
City Councilman Stephen A. Jennings, who is running for a second term, criticized the benevolent association for spending the money to supplement what he calls their lifestyles.
From 2012 through 2016, the firefighters benevolent association spent $317,037 from the insurance program on appliances, furniture, holiday meals, life insurance premiums, fitness equipment, shirts and hats and other items.
Why are thousands of tax dollars being sent directly to the fire union so they can spend it however they wish? Jennings said.
The benevolent association also spent $82,538 on parties, $6,719 on holiday meals and $26,675 on cable TV during the five-year period, according to a city report.
While he acknowledged the fund is legal but wrong, the councilman said, It illustrates the culture of the department and defies reality. Who gets to watch television at work?
Councilman Jennings has been a vocal critic of the fire department during a three-year contract dispute between the city and Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191.
The fire department and the contract dispute also has played a big part in the City Council campaign this fall.
Battalion Chief Tucker Wiley was surprised that the councilman is trying to make a political issue of the fund, surmising the candidate must be desperate.
But Councilman Jennings countered, It has nothing to do with desperation. It has to do with transparency and letting people know what their tax dollars are being used for.
Yet association officials defended the fund, saying it paid for dishes, forks, spoons and pots and pans to equip the fire stations kitchen, items the city would not pay for.
It also pays for fleece pullover jackets that firefighters wear during the winter, for fall and summer picnics, and retirement dinners, Mr. Rose said.
It helps with morale, he said.
Consumers who purchase insurance from out-of-state companies pay the 2 percent tax, so they are really the ones shouldering the burden to pay it, Councilman Jennings said.
He proposed that the $317,000 should be put back into the city budget to offset the cost of the $8.7 million fire department.
Councilman Jennings, who is running as a write-in candidate, questioned the oversight of how the money is spent. But the state requires the fund be audited, Mr. Rose said.
When the City Council was briefed on the issue several months ago, Mayor Joseph M. Butler was surprised earlier this week to hear that more than $26,000 was spent on cable TV, calling it frivolous. He also wondered how much the benevolent association gives to charity with the money.
Its completely legal, Mayor Butler said, But it doesnt make it right.
The money is donated to people who need it, Mr. Rose said, declining to divulge more information.
We dont do it toot our own horns, he said.
Money is currently donated to a firefighter who suffers from cancer and previously for an ill City Hall employee, he said.
We take care of our own, Mr. Rose said.
The mayor pointed out that its state law and the city cannot do anything to change it. Councilman Jennings believes the law should be changed,
Councilman Jennings is among five candidates running for two council seats in Tuesdays election.