Firefighters’ petition remains unresolved

Published 8:55 am Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Isle of County Board of Supervisors on Thursday tabled the issue of acceding to a petition from the Windsor and Carrollton volunteer fire departments. Both agencies claim the County government should release budgeted funds that are due to them in order to pay bills for insurance, maintenance and the like.

They’ve been in conflict with the County for approximately a year over how the departments are to be operated. The WVFD has had a Memorandum of Understanding with the County since March of 2008, which was a contract of how the equipment, facilities, and operations would be handled. A Vehicle Lease and Facility Use Agreement was proposed in May of 2014 by the County for all departments. Although the WVFD and CVFD objected to provisions of the FUA, the five other agencies ultimately signed on. According to County Attorney Mark Popovich, those handful have not experienced any issues after signing in June of last year. Since then, the two stations have been in several talk sessions on the matter.

Dale Scott, captain of the WVFD, stated recently that because the two departments did not sign, money was withheld by the County. He added that both stations have used their own financial reserves and fundraisers to continue service uninterrupted.

During a public comment period earlier in the meeting, person after person urged the supervisors to release the money.

“I should be at home with my wife and kids. Instead I’m trying to convince you to release the funds,” said Dane Scott of WVFD. He challenged the board members to go without their stipend for a year.

They were asked by Shelly Perry from the Hardy District what would be done if the volunteers quit.

Scott Speer of the CVFD asked, “Why do we work so hard for free, and why is there so much opposition?”

The unanimous decision by the board came following a recommendation from Popovich that the claims shouldn’t be allowed. He gave a Power Point presentation outlining the history of the conflict and explained his reasoning for the recommendation.

“What’s at issue is the petition seeks to force the BOS to expend public funds,” which he noted went back into the general fund on the close of the fiscal year, June 30. Further, the attorney noted that code gives governing bodies of localities the authority to make contributions of money to organization that provide voluntary firefighting services, but that authority is “discretionary” by the use of the word “may,” and is not required or mandated by law as more specifically stated in a subsection.

“You have legal discretion,” Popovich said. “The failure of two departments to submit invoices for direct payment of expenses from funds in the FY14-15 budget lies squarely on the shoulders of the departments.”

He added that the board doesn’t have to take action until Sept. 10.

Newport District Supervisor Byron “Buzz” Bailey asked Emergency Services Chief Jeff Terwilliger what points are not agreeable to the stations.

He answered that there are four issues they’re still trying to work through. First, reducing the agreement from 20 years to one year with a five-year renewal; second, consistency across the board for grass-cutting at the locations; third, a dispersement of funds; and fourth, designated language such as who’s to be station chief.

“The main issue is the desire to have requirement of funding,” Terwilliger said.

“You want trust. We have offered since last year to address your billings,” said Smithfield District Supervisor Al Casteen. “Give them [the bills] to us and we’ll pay us. Let’s let Mr. Popovich and the fellas to review this one more time. This is not a reason to be holding up all this effort. That’s self-imposed problems. Turn in all the bills and we’ll pay.”

Windsor District Supervisor Delores “Dee Dee” Darden explained that the FUA is for the maintenance of buildings and to establish a code of behavior.

“We have held fast to that” she said, and read from a list of concerns that evidently inspired the FUA. These include: response time — a lot of calls have gone unanswered; low ISO ratings (related to insurance); no background checks for training; lots of late reports; two incidents of sexual harassment; and notes from the Medical Examiner about a lack of communication and no orientation and assurance of volunteers and staff knowing fully how to do their jobs.

Darden added, “We’ve got to make sure we’ve got equity and a safe county to live and work in. We are very concerned. We need to move forward as a county. We are responsible to you the citizens.”

County Administrator Anne Seward said the FUA is on her and it’s for the protection of the county residents.

“You [the board] asked me to look for standards. This came from the volunteer fire departments about inequities,” she said.

Chairman Rex Alphin of the Carrsville District said, “Let’s get this FUA behind us.”

Afterward, Scott and other firefighters met outside to discuss the meeting. He said the two stations will be seeking guidance from their attorney, Joseph Latchum Jr. of the law firm Williams Mullen, based in Newport News.