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Fight Over Bromley Fire Service Leads to City Building Squabble

Update: A previous version of this article indicated that Kenton County officials did not respond to requests for comment but they did in fact and there was a technical error involving the RCN phone. The story has been updated with comment from Kenton County Emergency Management Director Steve Hensley. RCN regrets the error.

For a city that contracts out all of its major public services, there is one area in which Bromley is superior to its neighbors: fireworks.

But only the metaphorical kind.

Two of the last three monthly city council meetings in the small Kenton County city have erupted into either shouting or snide arguments over fire service.

In April, city council voted to end its relationship with the Bromley Volunteer Fire Department, leading its chief to angrily storm out of the meeting.

The city instead opted for its neighbors in Ludlow to provide fire and ambulance services for more than $32,000 annually for fire, and $250 per ambulance run.

Bromley expected its advanced life support (ALS) service to be provided still by its other neighbor, Crescent Springs-Villa Hills, which provided ALS even when the Bromley department still existed.

If April's meeting were a movie, then June's meeting is its sequel, with a livelier script and heavier-handed action.

Scott Ringo, a Villa Hills city councilman and chairman of the Crescent Springs-Villa Hills fire board, blasted his neighboring council for the way the decision to contract with Ludlow was handled. There were also allegations levied that the Ludlow Fire Department and its chief had engaged in intimidation tactics when CSVH responds to calls in Bromley.

"We as the two cities went out on a limb when you were struggling two and a half years ago," Ringo said to the Bromley council. "We had the county judge/executive involved pressuring us to help you guys to the extent that we could and we've stepped up and done that. We've met all parameters and answered all calls.

"Before this contract, you all knew you couldn't count on your own fire department to show up on runs, so we were being called on a mutual basis to provide service to you and it was costing us money. And many members of this council apologized to us for that before that contract was signed. You no longer have a fire department and that license is in jeopardy so at this juncture."

The state of Kentucky issues licenses to fire departments establishing the boundaries for which they are responsible. The Bromley Fire Department still holds the license, which cannot be taken by a city. Instead, another fire department would have to take it.

The Bromley Fire Department owns the license until June 30, at which point the city council also ordered it to vacate the city premises. Problems surrounding the Bromley department included financial concerns and the ongoing legal situation involving Donnie Jobe who served as fire chief and as mayor concurrently before resigning from both positions. He stepped down as mayor after being arrested and later indicted on criminal charges involving allegations of theft and abuse of the public trust.

He is set to go to trial in the summer.

Bromley also struggled with manpower, like many all-volunteer departments, so when its response time was challenged, Bromley city council opted to sign with CSVH for ambulance and ALS service, and its fire trucks would also respond when necessary.

That happened only after CSVH Fire Chief Jeff Wendt sent a letter in 2016 arguing that his department made 40 percent of the ambulance runs to Bromley while that city's residents did not pay the same fee as the residents of Crescent Springs and Villa Hills. Bromley had previously contracted with a private ambulance firm that went out of business.

In 2016, Bromley decided to sign with CSVH over a bid from Ludlow, a continuation of a nearly century-old rivalry between the two river neighbors. 

"We as a board don't care what you guys do," said Ringo in 2016. "We're good with you or without you. But the mutual aid we were giving you got out of hand, and we felt it was fair for you to pay what the citizens in our city are paying."

After the new contract was signed, things seemed calmer, until the Bromley Fire Department went away and Ludlow, with a new mayor and interim city manager and mostly new city council, re-entered the picture.

Ringo's words on Wednesday were much sharper than three years ago. 

"We said it didn't matter to us, but you came to us as you wanted us. We don't want to be played as a pawn for you to negotiate to other cities," Ringo said to Bromley city council. 

Bromley councilman David Radford said that Mayor Mike Denham had asked for other cities to be examined as the Bromley department was set to go away. The River City News reported in April, citing Mayor Denham, that CSVH did not submit a bid.

Ringo suggested that Bromley did not employ a sealed bid process, raising questions about the fairness of the process.

"Clearly, you didn't want my bid," Ringo said. "We don't care about providing service to you if you don't want us. We are a $1.2 million budget and you give us $33,000 a year. You're a rounding error on our budget but we are protecting you 100 percent with quality service that residents of Villa Hills and Crescent Springs get."

Prior to Wednesday's meeting, Kenton County leadership hosted a meeting with all parties representing Bromley, Ludlow, and Crescent Springs and Villa Hills.

Kenton County Emergency Management Director Steve Hensley said the focus of that meeting was to determine who would offer fire service to the unincorporated areas near Bromley previously served by the Bromley Volunteer Fire Department. Once it appeared that Crescent Springs-Villa Hills would take that on, since it was already providing ambulance service to those areas, Kenton County officials left the room and allowed the city and fire department representatives to work out boundary details.

"Once it was made a determination that Bromley Volunteer Fire Department was no longer going to be in business to that service area, and now that Ludlow is taking over the city of Bromley, we decided we would take a look at it to see if it made sense," Hensley said. "We felt it like it would make it a little bit cleaner for Ludlow and Bromley to share services because because we would be taking that unincorporated area out of the equation because it would only involve the two of them. That was the nature of our involvement."

Hensley noted that Villa Hills Police, which serves Crescent Springs, serves the unincorporated areas near Bromley. He also noted that the county had no standing in the decision of the cities on who provides their services, and the county simply allowed the city officials to use the county conference room to conduct that part of the meeting.

Ludlow Police Chief Scott Smith, who is also currently that city's interim city administrator, said that Knochelmann left the room, allowing the two sides to work out their issues, that Ludlow would provide fire, ambulance, and ALS service to Bromley, while Crescent Springs-Villa Hills would continue to provide ALS service to the unincorporated part of the surrounding area, such as a stretch of Bromley-Crescent Springs Road.

"The agreement was, you would write a letter to go to your board. The understanding was, he would write a letter and talk to the board," Smith said of Ringo. "The judge said it would make more sense for us to provide fire and ALS to Bromley."

The argument for Ludlow is that it is closer to Bromley.

"This council has never said it wanted out of this contract," CSVH Chief Wendt responded.

"We're not claiming you don't provide a good service," Smith continued. "What we're saying is, we're closer. We're here. And we want to provide this service and it makes sense for Ludlow and Bromley. There's been a lot of mistakes (in the past), but what we're saying is now you have a new council and mayor on this side and that side, and they want to function together. That's what we're trying to make happen.

"It just makes sense to provide service to Ludlow and Bromley together."

The meeting further deteriorated.

"We are not coming down here and going back five years where we were before and doing it for nothing," Wendt said. 

Ringo upped the ante and said CSVH would no longer be Bromley's mutual aid service provider. Mutual aid is agreed to by governments across the region that, when needed, respective fire departments would assist.

"So, you're threatening us not to come down here?," Mayor Denham asked.

"The ambulance and fire trucks will come here regardless and we'll deal with the politics later," Wendt said.

Ringo said that Bromley offers no mutual services to anyone.

"We never have," Mayor Denham said.

"You had a fire department," Ringo shot back.

"It was a contracted fire department," Denham said. "It's not the city's fault that the fire department failed to function."

"That's your vendor of service," Ringo said. "How you handled your vendor is not my problem. We will not be in the same situation we were providing before - free services."

Bromley city council ultimately voted 3-2 to end its relationship with CSVH, effective December 31, at which point Ludlow will also assume responsibility for ALS services. Council members Mike Kendall, Nancy Kienker, and David Radford voted in favor while Gail Smith and Tim Wartmann opposed it. Councilwoman Diane Wartman said she didn't have enough information and abstained. A tie vote would have gone to Mayor Denham to break.

In the future, CSVH will charge $450 per ambulance run to Bromley and $2.65 per mile traveled.

Ringo believes that CSVH would inherit the fire license when Bromley's department fully dissolves and vacates the city property, but he said his department would likely give it up.

"We're not going through this herky-jerky again. Don't come to us when things go bad," Ringo said. "We already redesigned our operations to add you in. We're going to redesign to take you out. We're not going to do it again. This was a friendly offer to you all with a friendly push from the judge/executive."

Ringo noted that Ludlow's backup would be Ft. Wright Fire Department, not CSVH.

Meanwhile, CSVH will still provide its service for the remainder of the year, placing it in the field with Ludlow's department, which Wendt and Ringo said had been unpleasant recently. 

Wendt said that Ludlow's department is showing up on all of CSVH's calls in Bromley and hovering by his department's staff. When one employee complained that he felt uncomfortable, Wendt says that Ludlow Fire Chief Mike Steward got in the employee's face and asked if that made him uncomfortable.

Steward denied that characterization, instead saying that when handing over documents to the employee, he asked mostly sarcastically whether it would make anyone uncomfortable.

Steward also said that Ludlow is only responding to CSVH calls in order to get a feel for its response times and needs. Smith, the Ludlow city administrator, said that, too.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: Crescent Springs-Villa Hills Fire Chief Jeff Wendt and Fire Board Chair Scott Ringo at Bromley City Council (RCN)