Fire dept. grilled on sick time, accounting practices

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City Council President Steve Merolla said on Monday that the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) would be, at the behest of Acting Mayor Joseph Solomon, performing analyses of all city departments to try and better assess the financial situation left behind by former Mayor Scott Avedisian.

This analysis of city finances will include the Warwick Fire Department, a department that faced about three hours of questions from the council and members of the public during last week’s budget hearings. Questions included inquiries into the department’s sick time policies, changes of shift procedures and how the department has consistently exceeded its overtime budgets each year.

Acting Chief Marcel Fontenault said that overtime has been driven by the department being undermanned due to retirements, sick time and on the job injuries. The overtime deficit for FY18 was projected at over $1 million and has nearly exceeded $8 million in total budgetary overruns since FY03.

Fontenault said that if the department could consistently keep its full complement of firefighters at 220, the overtime costs would significantly diminish. However, the department has been unable to maintain that level of staffing due in large part to unforeseen retirements. The department is currently devoid of a fire chief, an assistant chief and 13 firefighters due to retirements, and Fontenault said another 17 firefighters had put in their one-month notice for retirement at the time of the hearing.

“I'm hoping something is done so we don't lose them,” Fontenault said, indicating that some of them would be inclined to stay only if a successor agreement to their expiring contract is reached.

However, some on the council were not satisfied with the explanation for the overtime costs.

“Your overtime has never been low. It has never been low,” said Ward 5 Councilman and finance committee chair Ed Ladouceur during the Thursday evening budget hearing. “This is just an issue that continues, regardless of what your complement is.”

Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley asked Fontenault if the department had done any analysis into their minimum manning requirements to see if there was any room for adjustments going into the next contract so that they do not need to rely on paying people overtime to fill in for vacancies. Fontenault said no such analysis has been conducted, but that he had met with Acting Mayor Joseph Solomon to discuss various possible changes to policy going forward into a new agreement.

“Until that kind of analysis is done, it's going to be very difficult to see whether there can be something done other than hiring our way out of this,” Corley said. “And we can't hire our way out because we already have more people leaving than we can train and put on the job in the next 12 months.”

Corley is referencing how only 24 new recruits can be graduated from the city’s training academy at a time. Classes take six months to complete. Warwick business owner and chairman of Watchdog RI, Ken Block, asked Fontenault if the department had considered allowing firefighters to be trained at other academies from outside Warwick to help hire more to address the staffing needs.

“It doesn't say in the contract that they have to be trained here, but it only makes sense to train them here,” Fontenault answered.

Sick time, accounting practices called into question

Block continued his line of questioning by asking about how the department keeps track of sick time and monetizes unused sick days for firefighters who have achieved a maximum rollover bank of 140 sick days.

Currently as outlined in their contract, once a firefighter reaches a bank of 140 unused sick days (they get 20 sick days per year, which equates to 1.66 sick days each month), they can start cashing in 75 percent of those excess sick days at the end of each month. So, for example, if a firefighter goes an entire month without using any of their 1.66 sick days, they are entitled to a cash payout of 1.25 days for those unused sick days based on whatever their salary is. If they take two or more sick days, it should be subtracted from their overall bank with no payout at the end of each month.

However, utilizing accountability sheet and sick time data retrieved by Warwick citizen Rob Cote encompassing most of FY17, Block told the council that it is apparent there are serious accounting flaws in how unused sick time is handled by the department resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars being paid out in error.

The data suggests that, instead of additional sick time accrued being subtracted from the bank, the remaining 25 percent of that time is being added to the bank, enabling a firefighter to bank more time than they should be receiving. In one case, Block shows a firefighter who took two sick days still received about a half day’s worth of payment for that month due to a balance of excessive time in the sick bank that, contractually, shouldn’t be available in the first place.

“Collectively for the year, this error is well into the six digits of money that was not paid per the contract. I would suggest that you suspend the sick day payouts immediately until, A, you can work out the accounting, and B, figure out how you can get reimbursed for the moneys that were improperly paid,” Block said. “If you imagine this is a 10-year problem, it can be millions of dollars. It's a substantial problem.”

Block criticized how the financial record keeping for what amounts to millions of dollars occurs on a spreadsheet, with no oversight and no accountability into how its data is entered.

“On a million-dollar line item, you shouldn't be doing the record keeping on a spreadsheet. I think that's incredibly risky and there's no controls on it,” he said. “That's a whole series of critical problems that must be dealt with.”

Rob Cote then took to the microphone to expand upon other points of critique.

“This is a conversation about fiscal management. This is not a conversation in any way to disparage the wonderful work that these public servants do,” he qualified. “These questions are not an attack on the individuals, their skill set or how they perform in the service of the public. This is a financial conversation which should be devoid of any type of emotion.”

Cote said that his and Block’s analysis of the data from FY17 showed that firefighters who had banked 140 days of sick time received the maximum available payout or a partial payment for unused sick time, despite calling out sick during those months, nearly 300 times when they should have received no payment.

As a result, Cote asserts, each of these days incurs a cost equivalent to 3.75 days, since the firefighter gets paid their normal salary for that day due to calling out, collects 1.25 in unused sick time and the firefighter who has to cover their shift gets paid time and a half. “That’s a problem that has to be addressed,” Cote said.

Going further, Cote referenced an “enormous amount of mathematical errors” that present throughout the data in FY17. He cited firefighters who jumped from having 69.56 days in the sick bank at the end of April to having 140 days at the end of May. Vice versa, he showed how some firefighters saw their bank decrease from 140 to 127 in one month’s time – which isn’t contractually possible.

“Whether that is a data input error, which is most likely what it is, or a software error, it is an error for a program that computes moneys that are paid out from the taxpayer coffers. And it has major mathematical errors in it,” Cote argued. “Payments should be suspended until these are rectified.”

Cote continued his line of questioning to include the change of shift policy, which he believes has been utilized for a long time to preserve sick time and vacation time for firefighters to monetize later in their careers. He cited nearly 300 changes of shift taken in FY17 that were never reciprocated.

When Fontenault confirmed that there was no written policy in place to dictate when firefighters had to work a shift for the firefighter in compensation for them after having one of their shifts covered, Cote said this is in violation of the city’s Charter.

“You either have a contract or you don't have a contract,” Cote said. “In the city of Warwick, according to our City Charter, there is no such thing as a verbal contract.”

Merolla inquired about the sick leave and change of shift policies as well, targeting the accusation that firefighters have utilized changes of shift and sick time to work other jobs outside the city.

“If there's evidence that that happened, I think as a group there needs to be stronger controls and mechanisms in place,” he said. “It reflects on all the other officers that are working hard and doing the right thing. One or two bad apples, or several, give the whole department a bad reputation, and that's not right...I would like to trust people and know things are going right.”

Merolla agreed that the information put forward by Block and Cote should be reviewed by a third party to assess the legitimacy and potentially provide more insight. He said on Monday that this work, to his knowledge, had already begun, as representatives from RIPEC were in attendance at Saturday’s meeting.

Comments

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Concerned88

Well this is very interesting. The fight fighters sick time and pay of not using it is quite different from teachers. Teachers and fightfighters both work for the city. Teachers pay for Every day they take off sick - some years 11.00 each day some 27.00. None are free. And if you don’t use a sick day - you don’t get a percent pay fir not using it. You don’t get anything. Hmm - both work for the city - very, very different benefits. I believe I read that more teachers and students died from violence than service men each year. So I am thinking just thinking benefits should be inline with firefighters or the other way around - firefighters can take what teachers get.

Tuesday, June 5
GatoGestapo

I would like to see this Data. Considering it is being used as a crutch to further a clear bias towards a group of individuals. Maybe the “data” the failed politian and folded business owner hold should be available to all residents of Warwick, especially since it is digitized and can be easily deciphered...

Tuesday, June 5
Scal1024

Concerned88, working for the city is the ONLY thing in common between the WFD and the teachers. The WFD shows up to work, whether theres a contract dispute or not. They don't wage "sickouts" under the guise of "doing it for the kids". They put their lives on the line, AND THEY ACHIEVE RESULTS. Yes, the 2 systems are very different, but so are the employees occupying both departments. There is MUCH GREATER RISK for the WFD day in and day out.

If your argument is to cap the amount of sick time used overall, thats a debate that can be had. If you are trying to argue our Firefighters should be required to PURCHASE sick days? That is something as a taxpayer I would NEVER get behind.

No one is saying the current system is perfect, and steps should be taken to curb total ot costs (commenters have told me the total ot # is less since new recruits started) but making our Firefighters purchase a sick day is a non starter (as I'm sure it would be to them as well).

Over the last few years I have commented on articles relating to pensions and legacy costs. I have always said that in order to achieve ANY savings, concessions will need to be given on the city side as well. You can't ask the WFD to slash their own benefits (unrealistic ask) without giving up some concessions as well. This is where the argument breaks down from Rob Cote (in my opinion) it can't just be cut, cut, cut. I don't think thats getting anyone to the negotiating table.

We've disagreed on this point before Rob, so I doubt I'd change your mind on the topic, thats not what I'm looking for. I'm just trying to frame the argument a little more realistically. Anyone is free to disagree.

Wednesday, June 6
Warwick Man

Scal, I did some quick research to compare budgets. City of Cranston (slightly smaller dept) has an overtime budget of 3.5 million (17, 18) It has been as high as 4.7 million in 2016. EG and WW much smaller depts are around 900K/year. If you look at warwick 1.6 this year, and add in the 700,000 saved in salaries the OT number is around 1 million. Again I’m not saying that’s not high, but for a department of this size we are well under ALOT of other communities. The department could be down as much as 30-40 Firefighters as of July 1st. OT will be higher. There is also no budget for an academy at this time.

Wednesday, June 6
Warwick Man

I would also like Captain Rob to comment on his assertion that 95% of detail pay goes to on duty people. If that was the case surely the detail pay line would be astronomical. But there isn’t a budget line for details. Probably because the extremely small amount of details that we have are paid by the company requesting a detail. Again, someone who has info from the city (I’m not denying) but doesn’t understand what he’s reading. He will never come out and say he read it wrong BTW.

Wednesday, June 6
Scal1024

Warwick Man is the 30-40 WFD members who could potentially leave or "could be down" as you stated, are those due to retirements? Why do you believe there is this sudden wave in retirements? Is it due to fear of potential looming cuts? Thanks for the response and perspective on ot budgets. That is an important comparison to make. You're right to the average person $1 million seems like alot, when compared to other places its not so bad.

I'm also curious when it comes to Block and Cote is it the opinion of the WFD that the numbers they are working with are made up? Is it Cote's history vs the department that has some locked in against them? I want to try and understand if its the numbers you dispute or the messanger? Or if you just feel they don't understand the numbers they have?

Wednesday, June 6
Thecaptain

Scal,

You say that it can't be cut, cut , cut. But the fact of the matter is, that it is give, give, give, and has been for decades. Even this year, with the city facing millions in deficit, raises are planned for all, and the taxpayers, we get the maximum tax increase. How can that happen?

Pertaining to this immediate issue, the documentation which came directly from the city, clearly indicates that the unused sick pay system is broken, is coordinated, and has been gamed for years. These are city documents. In addition, if you were to read the union contract, you'll see that the language is so loose that it is open to be abused.

To simplify the issue - if you have perfect attendance and do not call out sick during the year, you can cash out the maximum sick pay of 15 days. (which by the way I think is ridiculous) There are numerous examples where men have taken multiple regular sick days, (not IOD) and have still been paid for 15 days due to allowing them to accumulate in excess of the maximum amount set forth in the contract. No checks and balances in the department.

These types of coordinated blatant abuses need to end. Its just that simple. The city is in a catastrophic financial situation. Think about this, 2 years ago the budget was 298 million. Now it is 316 million. 18 million increase in 2 years. Do they pick up your garbage more often? Are your roads any better? Are your taxes lower? No to the above, however, we closed down a senior center because we couldnt afford a new roof, community police program cut, senior services cut, assets declining, liabilities increasing, cost of health insurance rising with no additional co pays from employees, generous benefits, etc...

What are the parameters to continue to give raises? Time? What about the fiscal wellness of the city? Is that factored into the equation? No.

By the way, city solicitor Peter Ruggiero should be terminated immediately for allowing to enter into a contract that contains language which clearly takes advantage of the taxpayers. We have no one at the negotiating table that represents the taxpayer. The time for a complete forensic audit is overdue. This issue is just one example which justifies the audit.

Wednesday, June 6
Warwick Man

Scal,

Yes there are many members closing in on 30 years that could be retiring. Their reasons are their own but uncertainty I’m sure plays into it. It’s not so much disputing their numbers as I’ve said they have the info from the city, but again they are incorrect in their evaluation of it. Mr Cote claimed COS cost 1.8 million, in reality it costs zero. He still hasn’t answered the false Detailed out claim. There is nothing wrong with people keeping financial tabs on everything a city does. But misleading the public is something we will not stand for. We welcome an audit as it should clear a lot of this misinformation up.

Wednesday, June 6
Warwick Man

Captain,

Raises were not included in our budget. Another false claim. Can you explain “Detailed Out”? And where all that detail pay is in the budget.

Wednesday, June 6
Scal1024

Captain, to be clear ANY department receiving raises in this budget climate should be scrutinized down to the penny. When I talk about gaining concessions, perhaps pay raises could've been tied to capping sick payouts etc? That would've been a decent place to start. Instead raises are negotiated, and what did we gain for it? That was more my point when I said it can't be cut, cut, cut. You are free to disagree with that point I just wanted to clarify.

I applaud Warwick Man for being in favor of an audit. I truly feel that is how we find out which departments (city wide not just WFD) are blatantly overspending and wasting taxpayer money. That would be a great start.

Wednesday, June 6
Thecaptain

Let me clarify, raises have been proposed in all of the contract negotiations.

Wednesday, June 6
Scal1024

Thanks for clarifying that the raises have been proposed and not agreed to. I believe all should be under alot more scrutiny. Especially while the city is seeking a max tax increase on residents. I understand the raises aren't the reason the city is broke and cost of living changes, however, its not a good look for ANY department to be seeking significant raises in this fiscally challenging climate.

Where is Corrente on the budget?

Why is he ALWAYS conveniently absent from the conversation?

His solution to the cities budget hole is to slash revenue by alleging he'll cut taxes? WHERE DOES THE MONEY COME FROM? How will we make up for ALL of the tax dollars lost. This is why Rick Corrente is always AWOL on important issues. HE DOESN'T HAVE ANY ANSWERS!!! I hope voters again take notice that the lying, tax delinquent fake mayor still has NOT identified 1 line item he would cut from the budget, nor has he told voters how he will pay for a single one of his "plans". This is why he's not a serious candidate, and has never been treated as one.

Wednesday, June 6
GoodJake

I'm all for a city wide audit too. Not a Warwick firefighter but I am a tax payer and as I understand it the total fire Dept budget is less than 7 % of the budget. Where is the other 93 % going and shouldn't that be more important? I don't listen to Cote because he basically just hates the firefighters " must be pancake day" he is as everyone knows despises the firefighters for reasons other than the budget. It's just another reason to try and put them down. Hey, every hero needs a villian right?

Wednesday, June 6
richardcorrente

Dear Scal1024,

Did I read that right?

You ask why am I "ALWAYS absent from the conversation". Are you kidding me? I'm always IN THE CONVERSATION!

Avedisian was "always absent". Solomon so far has been "always absent" but I'm always here Scal, giving my honest comments and being as open with my ideas. You continue to attack me saying "Where does the money come from?" and "He doesn't have any answers." but the fact of the matter is, I am the ONLY person that HAS offered answers Scal. You haven't. Solomon (so far) hasn't. Just me Scal and if you can read, please read The Corrente Plan. Go to correnteformayor.com. Agree. Disagree, or better yet, propose your "better plan". If you have one.

As far as your opinions toward the Warwick Fire Department I agree with you that they "ACHIEVE RESULTS" and that there is "MUCH GREATER RISK" for the WFD day in and day out. I would also add that when I did a comparison to all fifty states, the Warwick Fire Department's average salary was almost to the penny the exact average of all firefighters nationwide. One last thing, when Warwick received federal monies for training their new firefighters some lazy person listed those "training hours" as "overtime hours". I call that person "lazy" because it inaccurately suggested that the overtime was higher than it really was. He/she should have taken the time to make a new column labeled "training hours".

Happy Summer everyone.

Rick Corrente

The Taxpayers Mayor

Wednesday, June 6
Thecaptain

Are you really serious? Or just so detached from reality that it becomes easier to hate someone who is outspoken as opposed to doing the research yourself and finding the waste? Maybe you should read the budgets, the contracts, and the city charter and then determine what can be cut. One other question. No department on the city side has ever had an independent audit performed, EVER. Do you not understand that? There have been people on the city council for 20 years, yet a resident has to go and find the waste, document it, and bring them the results. You really think the city is running efficiently? My guess is that you have never attended a budget hearing, never read a contract, and never interacted with your council person. Government should be vigorously challenged on a regular basis by people who give a damn and perform research. Let me know when you have performed your first minute of research and issued your first APRA request. Im dying to see the topics.

Wednesday, June 6
richardcorrente

Dear Scal1024,

Did I read that right?

You ask why am I "ALWAYS absent from the conversation". Are you kidding me? I'm always IN THE CONVERSATION!

Avedisian was "always absent". Solomon so far has been "always absent" but I'm always here Scal, giving my honest comments and being as open with my ideas. You continue to attack me saying "Where does the money come from?" and "He doesn't have any answers." but the fact of the matter is, I am the ONLY person that HAS offered answers Scal. You haven't. Solomon (so far) hasn't. Just me Scal and if you can read, please read The Corrente Plan. Go to correnteformayor.com. Agree. Disagree, or better yet, propose your "better plan". If you have one.

As far as your opinions toward the Warwick Fire Department I agree with you that they "ACHIEVE RESULTS" and that there is "MUCH GREATER RISK" for the WFD day in and day out. I would also add that when I did a comparison to all fifty states, the Warwick Fire Department's average salary was almost to the penny the exact average of all firefighters nationwide. One last thing, when Warwick received federal monies for training their new firefighters some lazy person listed those "training hours" as "overtime hours". I call that person "lazy" because it inaccurately suggested that the overtime was higher than it really was. He/she should have taken the time to make a new column labeled "training hours".

Happy Summer everyone.

Rick Corrente

The Taxpayers Mayor

Wednesday, June 6
Thecaptain

OK, here we go. Questions for Rick Corrente (that i know he will not answer as he has zero knowledge)

1. Rick, please name one single line item in the budget that you will cut and how?

2. Rick, please point to the line item (that as you call "ferderal monies") where these monies are listed.

3. Rick, please point to the line item where hours arelisted.

5. Rick, please provide a link to the research that "you" did showing the WFD compensation being on par with that across the country. (BTW, you are wrong)

5. Rick, the federal monies that you speak of, when did Warwick receive them, how much where they, and what was the breakdown of those monies in terms of salary vs benefits?

6. Rick, why where you absent again from the budget hearings and made no comments?

7. Rick, what is the dollar amount of our accrued liability which is carried by unused sick time, and where is that liability listed?

8. Rick, please assign a dollar amount using actual line items and city data, which would be realized from your "plan" that would revert back to the taxpayers. Line item, not speculation please.

Shall I go on?

Wednesday, June 6
TheRiddler

DEM ARRESTS WARWICK MAN FOR ILLEGAL DISPOSAL OF GASOLINE IN SEPTIC SYSTEM

PROVIDENCE: A Warwick man was arrested today for allegedly disposing of gasoline by pouring it down the drain at his business. Robert Cote, 39, of 12 Social Drive in Warwick, was arrested by DEM Officers at his place of business and arraigned before Judge Walter Gorman in 6th Division District Court in Warwick. He was charged with a single count of unlawfully disposing of hazardous waste. Cote entered no plea, as typically occurs in felony cases. He was released on $5,000 personal recognizance and faces an arraignment in Superior Court on August 14. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail and/or a $5,000 fine. The RI Attorney General's Office will be prosecuting the case.

According to Sr. Agent Giusto Iannelli, of DEM's Office of Criminal Investigation, the Warwick Fire Department was called to Cote's business, the Pro Divers Shop at 2442 West Shore Road, on April 30 after a neighbor in an adjacent strip mall heard an explosion and observed smoke coming from the dive shop. The fire department responded and extinguished the fire, but an officer at the scene noticed a heavy smell of gasoline coming from the facility. Cote admitted to placing a container with less than a gallon of gasoline in a sink to see if the gasoline was contaminated. Cote claimed that the fumes from the gasoline were ignited by a spark from a hot water heater.

The fire officer at the scene called DEM to determine if there was a remaining hazard. John Leo, a Sanitary Engineer with DEM's Emergency Response Unit, responded and found that a considerable amount of gasoline was present in the septic system. Leo determined that the situation constituted a threat to public safety and the environment, and he immediately called CYN Environmental to come to pump out the septic system.

Subsequent lab tests indicated that there was at least 20 and perhaps as much as 30 gallons of gasoline in the septic system, enough to pose a significant danger of a major explosion. Leo noted that if the fumes had backed up overnight in the pipes and vents associated with the septic system, the result could have been disastrous.

In addition to today's arrest, DEM officers, assisted by officers from the Warwick Police Department, executed a search warrant and removed evidence from the scene.

Thursday, June 7
Thecaptain

To the Riddler (aka Scott Small wife beater) This is really getting old. But funny.

WARWICK BEACON, Thursday, December 17, 1998 Pg. 13

Cote cleared in gas-dumping charge

Robert Cote, the owner of Pro-divers, Inc. on 2442 West Shore Rd., has been cleared of charges that he dumped 30 gallons of gasoline into his septic tank.

A statewide grand jury ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Cote for the alleged crime. On April 30 this year, a fire started in a sink at the shop. Cote said he was outside tying to get a small boat to start and he suspected that there was water in the gasoline. Cote said he took a small container of the fuel into his shop to investigate, and upon walking in saw that he had a customer. He placed the container in a sink near a hot water tank.

Cote said the tank has a pilot light, and that must have been what ignited the fuel in the sink. Cote said he and two customers were able to put the fire out.

“We put the fire out. It took about 30 seconds”, Cote stated.

Then the fire department arrived. An inspector said he smelled gasoline, and the Department of Environmental Management was called in.

“The only damage that occurred was when the DEM came in with a Sawzall,” Cote said. The DEM ripped out the pipes that they thought could be used as evidence against Cote to prove he had dumped up to 30 gallons of gasoline down his drain.

Cote noted that the boat he was working on could not carry 30 gallons of gasoline, and also that 30 gallons of gasoline would weigh about 260 pounds – more weight than he could easily carry back to his shop.

Thursday, June 7
TheRiddler

Ok Lying Rob Cote

Thursday, June 7
Phil31

Warwick Man,

If salary increases are not included in yiur budget how to you expect to pay for then once the contract negotiations are settled? I ASSUME you are asking for annual salary increases so to say your budget in includes no increases is either misleading or poor budgeting.

Sunday, June 10
tekpfd

thecaptain:

Let's be honest here. "Not enough evidence" is clearly not the same as "innocent". j/s

Sunday, June 10
Cat2222

I believe that most Warwick citizens would agree that an audit is required for the WFD. Internally, they must come up with a better plan for compliance other than pen/pencil/excel spreadsheet. One thing I have always scratched my head at is if you are being accused of something, most people would first set the record straight with documentation and second, change their practice so that the accusation can't be used against them again.In this case, it is like they are just shrugging their shoulders and giving an, "oh well, what can you do". Is it ego or stupidity?

As for tekpfd and TheRiddler: Most of us already know about the situation with Thecaptain. We also know about the outcome so when you only post one side of the story you give yourself away as a troll. There are ALWAYS two sides to a story.

Monday, June 11
CaptainRkb

Sir I have served a quarter on a century as a professional firefighter.The latest soapbox sideshow Cote and Block disgusts me. On Father’s Day I stopped at the memorial and WFD Headquarters to see my late father also The veterans cemetery he spent nearly 6 yrs active duty USAF with the some of the most decorated fighter squadrons of the cold and Vietnam war. Then many years as a Warwick firefighter . He past at 67 years old I grew up knowing most of the deceased members on that piece of ground.I saw the sacrifices my parents made as a child I have done the same.The average age of death for a Warwick firefighter is maybe 70years old.I have been nearly killed in the line of duty myself. Soo as far as Block and that piece of work Cote are concerned l wouldn’t let them run a lemonade stand never mind a fire Dept and feel as though they are urinating in my dads grave and all who served proudly with a thing called honor. They couldn’t do my job or what my family members have done for over 200yrs of combined service.

Respectfully Captain Robert k Bell Sr

Wednesday, June 20