Cities large and small need to adopt policies and procedurea to ensure that using volunteers to help with civic projects doesn’t lead to costly litigation for injuries or damages, Alan Hulse, the CEO of the Montana Municipal Insurance Authority, told the Choteau City Council at its Nov. 19 meeting.
The Choteau City Council began working on a volunteer policy this fall after Choteau volunteer Julie Brantley started painting the playground equipment in the Mini-Park without updating the city on her plans or reviewing them with the public works director. Brantley had received the go-ahead some time ago for the project from the late Mayor Jack Conatser.
As part of this process, the city invited Hulse to come and give the council information on why volunteer policies and procedures are necessary.
Hulse said the MMIA is a self-insurance pool formed in 1986 by the state’s cities and towns. About 125 of the state’s 127 incorporated cities and towns belong to the organization, which provides property, liability and workers compensation coverage for the members. Hulse started with MMIA in 1992 and has been the CEO for the past 12 years.
Cities all across the state use volunteers to help with projects in parks and buildings, libraries, fire departments and more, he said. “The thing that we see with respect to volunteers is that once you authorize volunteers to do service or work for you, you become responsible for them from a liability/injury standpoint, so they have to be managed just as your employees are,” he said.
MMIA recommends that cities and towns all have volunteer policies and procedures that include appointing all volunteers, training them on issues such as workplace safety, drug and alcohol policies, workplace violence, sexual harassment, chain of command, and supervising volunteers as they work on city projects, which must align with the age and the capabilities of the volunteers, Hulse said.
For example, he said, the city should not allow children to run power tools. “It boils down to common sense,” he said. “You pick the task you’re going to use volunteers for, you train them, you oversee and manage them, and you’re going to be fine.”
The MMIA provides liability and workers compensation coverage for volunteers that the cities have appointed. That means that if a volunteer damages something owned by the city or someone else, the MMIA will provide liability coverage for that expense. Likewise, if a volunteer is injured while working for the city, the MMIA will provide workers compensation coverage.
But, he said, for this coverage to be provided, the city must be able to document that it appointed the volunteer and authorized the work the volunteer was doing.
By doing this, the city is making sure that it has insurance coverage for any damages and that volunteers, if injured while volunteering, will be able to file a workers compensation claim that will cover medical costs, lost wages, vocational-rehabilitation and death benefits. Having this coverage protects the city from being sued by a volunteer for significant damages, reducing the city’s liability risk, Hulse said.
Hulse also said that MMIA recommends that cities follow Montana’s child labor laws. “Those laws are there to protect the kids,” he said.
When civic organizations — like the Lions Club or Scouts, for example — come to volunteer for the city, Hulse said, the city should have an agreement that spells out whose liability and workers compensation is going to cover the group. Typically, he said, the group has its own insurance coverage, but the city needs to know that in advance of the work being done.
Individuals or groups that are using city facilities for their activity — like Rich Lusky’s summertime car shows or the Chamber of Commerce’s brews and music in the City Park — should carry their own events coverage. The MMIA offers a line of event insurance that cities can access for community events, he said.
In other matters at the meeting, Public Works Director Mike Maples said the wastewater flowing into the city’s sewage treatment plant has increased from a low of less than 200,000 gallons a day on Sept. 9 to the current rate of around 970,000 gallons a day. Initially, he suspected a break in a sewer line or manhole that was allowing groundwater to infiltrate, but the crew has been unable to find any such breaks. If a break isn’t the problem, he said, the next likely suspect is high groundwater based on the level of Spring Creek and the Teton River and emerging groundwater around town and in adjacent areas.
Despite the volume of water flowing into the plant, he said, the plant, which has a very healthy population of bacteria, has been able to treat to specifications despite its official capacity of 700,000 gallons a day for adequate treatment.
Maples said he has contacted Aaron Fiaschetti, a hydrologist with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Teton River Chief Water Commissioner Peter Fritch and the Bureau of Mines about a collaborative study of groundwater in and around Choteau. The city will collect data for this effort, he said, asking people to let the city office know if they have water in their basements or groundwater standing on their property. The study will also include more groundwater monitoring wells. “The ultimate goal is to try and figure out a solution,” he said.
October was a bad month for the city’s water system, he said. A large water line leak near the hospital boosted losses to 5,181,730 gallons or 65% of all water pumped. That leak has been repaired, he said. The city’s water pumps are running about three and a half hours a day, which is normal for mid-November.
The city crew has mostly wrapped up branch removal after the fall snow storms and is continuing to rehabilitate alleys as the fiber-optic cable installation teams move through the city. The cable contractor, JKL, is providing the city with gravel for fixing up the muddy messes. Maples said the alley work will be done in two parts, a first run, and then, after the material has time to settle, a second run. He asked citizens to be patient with the process.
Maples also said the city has run into a big problem for its paper and cardboard recycling program. Steel Etc. of Great Falls, which has been hauling paper and cardboard, has notified the city that after Nov. 27, it will no longer provide this service.
If this cardboard has to go into the Northern Montana Joint Refuse Disposal District landfill, garbage prices could go up and the volume of cardboard is only going to increase as more people order online, Maples said. He told the council he will meet with Pacific Hide and Steel to see whether that company would be interested in taking over for Steel Etc.
City Finance Office Jodi Rogers reported that deputy city clerk Becky Olson has retired and the city has hired Traci Woith to replace her. Woith is doing a good job and is quickly learning the responsibilities and duties of the job. She said she has also submitted the city’s financial data to the auditors for the annual review.
The council also unanimously adopted the Teton County Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan.