Firefighters await response to petition

Published 5:47 pm Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Windsor and Carrollton volunteer fire departments are anticipating an answer to their respective claims for money they believe is owed to them by the Isle of Wight County government. The request is the latest chapter of a lengthy conflict between the two agencies and County over control of how their departments are to be run.

Dale Scott, captain of the WVFD, stated in a press release that a Petition for Payment of Contributions was filed on June 11 and sent to members of the Board of Supervisors, the County Administrator Anne Seward and County Attorney Mark Popovich asking for budgeted taxpayer money. Scott said Popovich let him know the BOS would consider both claims at the meeting on Thursday, July 16.

Representing the firefighters is Joseph Latchum Jr. of the law firm Williams Mullen, based in Newport News. Previously, H. Woodrow Crook was the attorney.

“Both departments made the decision that due to his long-time ties with Isle of Wight County government — and the route that this matter was headed — it would be best for all of us to seek legal counsel from outside the county,” said Scott, adding that legal fees are being paid through fundraisers.

Latchum said on Friday morning that the petition is “a required step in Virginia Code to resolve these types of situations. We’ve appealed to the BOS to reconsider their position.”

He added it’s “unreasonable and unfair to expect them [firefighters] to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week” without the money to maintain the station, engines and necessary equipment to do their service.”

Scott said, “The main item that is needed by these departments is the release of our budgeted funds so that we can continue to protect the other citizens in our county without interruption.”

“If they [the supervisors] reject that, we would file a complaint, an administrative step necessary before filing a lawsuit,” Latchum said. “I would hope we wouldn’t have to go through that procedure, but if we have to do it, we have to do it.”

The attorney, who said he’s been an practicing law since 1971, also said he’s never come across such a situation as that of the fire departments and county.

The WVFD, which has been in existence for several decades, entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Isle of Wight County in March of 2008. Scott said this MOU was an agreement of how the operations, equipment and facility would be conducted. He noted that the station answered over 300 calls in fiscal year 2014-2015 with a 100-percent volunteer staff. The CVFD, established in 1966, provides fire protection and also provides Emergency Medical Services (EMS) with volunteers and a partial paid staff on weekdays.

Scott stated that Vehicle Lease and Facility Use Agreements were proposed on May 11, 2014, by Seward for all fire departments.

“After citizen support of the volunteer stations and volunteer resistance, the BOS voted not to pursue the Vehicle Lease Agreement,” Scott stated. “This was followed by a vote to withhold the funds of any station that did not sign their proposed FUA by June 30, 2014. Both WVFD and CVFD voted not to sign the proposed FUA and have not received budgeted taxpayer dollars since July 1, 2014. WVFD voted not to sign because many provisions of the proposed FUA were contradictory to the existing three-party MOU.”

All the while, the captain noted, both fire departments continued to serve county residents “with the same dedication and commitment that we have for nearly 120 combined years without interruption.”

Further, both stations have been using their own reserve finances and fundraisers to maintain operations.

And Scott believes the WVFD continues to live up to the MOU.

“There were many contradictory provisions that were important to us in 2008 when this agreement was executed by all three parties that have not lost importance. They include the fact that the station chief was not included in the decision-making process in many aspects of the county’s proposed FUA,” he said.

“The county wants WVFD to assume all responsibility for grounds maintenance, including financial responsibility. The Town of Windsor was very responsible with this maintenance until IOW County agreed to assume this responsibility from them in 2008 in exchange for other concessions. Now it seems like a bait-and-switch tactic where IOWC wants to transfer their responsibility to WVFD.

“We’re willing to compromise and arrange for this maintenance as long as the cost is in our budgeted county contributions. The MOU also states the Board of Supervisors and Town agree that the WVFD will continue to have control of access and use of Fire Department facilities and equipment.”

As Scott sees it, “the original FUA attempted to nullify our entire MOU. That was totally unacceptable. The most recent FUA proposed in late May removes or amends some provisions of the MOU while leaving others intact.”

He added that specific FUA provisions, which were opposed by both departments, included “an open-ended provision in the county’s latest proposed FUA asking us to adhere to ‘then adopted policies and procedures of the county.’”

Through attorney Crook’s efforts, a revised agreement was presented this past early January, followed in March by the Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Association, which includes all seven stations in the county, to unanimously vote in support of the new agreement.

Scott stated that five of the seven stations signed then, and the other two voted to sign if the county was in agreement.

“Supervisor [Byron] Bailey made a motion at three BOS meetings to accept this revised agreement that was supported by all seven stations,” Scott said. “Each time there was a vote of 4-1, 4-1 and 3-1 with Mr. Bailey being the sole vote in favor. During this entire time the BOS stated that it was their agreement and no other because they had already adopted it.”

On May 26, the directors of both WVFD and CVFD reportedly sat down with Emergency Services Chief Jeff Terwilliger and reached agreed-upon concessions.

“We felt optimistic that we were finally coming to an agreement,” Scott said. “The following morning Jeff Terwilliger called and said that he had been thinking about it since our meeting the night before and said he could not present our changes to the County Administrator or the County Attorney.

Don Robertson, spokesman for the county, recalled that the chief had met with department reps.

“He presented some concessions that addressed the concerns expressed by the fire departments; however, at that meeting they provided a new list of concerns that had not been discussed previously — including funding issues.”

The captain said that when the FUA was the topic at the Carrollton Civic League on June 1, the membership learned supervisor Bailey didn’t know of the new proposed agreement. But chairman Rex Alphin did, and had even called WVFD and CVFD reps on May 27 thanking them for their “continued willingness to sit down and come to an agreement.”

“At this point, after nearly a year of trying to make compromises and funding being withheld, it seemed that there was no movement by IOW County toward an amicable agreement other than their own,” Scott said. “At that time, both stations made a decision to protect the departments and the citizens by taking an action to prevent the disruption of emergency services provided by these two stations.”

Asked for additional comment, CVFD Captain Fred Mitchell said he agrees 100 percent with Scott, and added, “It’s a shame the volunteers of Carrollton have to fight the County to provide a free service.

“It’s disappointing that the people we elected don’t seem to want to lead, save Bailey.”

Robertson said the petition is on the board agenda. Further, “any unspent contributions revert back to the General Fund at the end of the fiscal year (June 30).”

Delores “Dee Dee” Darden, supervisor for the Windsor District, also confirmed the board is planning to take action. Earlier in the calendar year, it was Darden who suggested the two departments sit down with Terwilliger and iron out an agreement, which could be revisited in last summer or early autumn.

“We think we might be able to meet three out of the four demands in the petition — simple things such as grass-cutting and housekeeping — and go from there,” she said.