Berkeley County officials and fire chiefs are locked in a power struggle over a fund set aside for emergency expenses that could result in residents paying more for fire protection.
The chiefs and members of a board that oversees their expenses plan to meet July 3 to hash out their differences over how departments request money from the emergency fund and what the money can be used for.
"In the past, the money was being used for whatever," said Marty Housand, chairman of the county's Special Fire Tax
Advisory Committee, pointing out that money from the emergency fund has been spent on paving parking lots and remodeling kitchens and replacing air conditioners in fire stations.
"The long and short of it is that they've never had any controls over their money and they are used to getting whatever they want and doing what they want," he said.
Since the fall, the committee has been considering only requests that involve emergencies, safety or need, putting the panel at odds with some of the chiefs.
"We've always insisted that the subject matter experts - the chiefs, the district fire boards - be included in the discussions and they're not," said Tim Stephenson, chief of the Whitesville Rural Fire Department. "We're being completely left out and we're the guys with the experience."
County Councilman Ken Gunn, head of the Justice and Public Safety committee, and members of the Fire Tax Advisory Commission say they aren't questioning the chiefs' expertise, but want more accountability.
At stake is a pooled account for the 25 fire departments in unincorporated areas.
Of the $70 homeowners are charged for fire protection, $65 goes to the local department. Part of the other $5 goes toward a fund that supplements departments with budgets of less than $50,000. The rest of it - about $150,000 annually - goes toward emergency expenses.
Shortly after Gunn joined the County Council and was appointed chairman of the Justice and Public Safety Committee in January 2013, the fire chiefs asked for a $40 increase in the annual fee. That prompted Gunn to begin looking into past requests for emergency funding but he found paperwork missing.
"There was a lot of confusion on the records, and I wanted to clear that up because it's taxpayer money," he said.
The request to increase the fees never got the backing to be presented to County Council. Instead, Gunn got council's permission to expand the fire tax advisory committee from five to eight members so that it would have a representative from each council district like other advisory boards.
The expanded commission denied earlier requests that were made, but not supported by paperwork or did not meet their criteria, said Housand, one of the new appointees. That included fees that support firefighter training and matching funds for grants to buy equipment.
"This board is a little more conservative and asking questions and the chiefs don't like that," he said. "I can tell you every one of those board members want to try to help the fire departments, but when the board was first created, several fire chiefs said, 'We have no trust in y'all.'"
In a letter to County Council, Berkeley County Fire Chiefs' Association President Scott Lee wrote that he believes the commission has been influenced by Gunn and accused Gunn of undermining the chiefs' efforts.
"We are concerned that the Fire Tax Advisory Board is not committed to improving the fire service," Lee wrote. He did not return phone calls this week.
The contracts between the departments and the chiefs require written requests for the pool money, and, in an effort to improve transparency, the commission last fall created an application for funds that was approved by County Council.
"As best I can determine, this dispute is over having to fill out a request for these funds," Gunn said.
Stephenson said many of the departments cannot afford to pay the fees for training at the county center or for new equipment if matching grant applications continue to be excluded from funding.
"Smaller departments aren't applying for pool fund money because it's almost not worth going up there and taking the browbeating," he said.
Gunn said the commission meetings are open to the public, and at least some of the chiefs have attended each one.
"Nobody wants to get into the day-to-day operations of any of the individual fire departments," he said. The county gives the departments $3.7 million each year and only controls the execution of the contracts, the amount of fire tax per household, and approval of pool fund expenditures, he said.
For instance, Whitesville collects about $420,000 each year from the fire fee, and "they could buy $400,000 worth of hotdogs, as long as they still responded to emergencies," Gunn said.
So far this year, the commission and council have approved the only request received: $14,400 toward a 5 percent match for a FEMA grant for a $288,000 tanker for Jamestown. The board agreed that matching grants do not fit their criteria, Housand said, but approved it because "there was no way for them to come up with the money in the 20 or 30 days they had to pay it."
Since May 27, when Gunn said publicly that the departments balked at filling out the request form for pool money, there has been about $350,000 in requests for the $123,169 remaining this year in the pool, Housand said. Many are from the larger departments that already have the biggest budgets, he said.
"It's absurd when you look at it," he said. "It's an emergency pool. If we spend all we've got, then if these smaller departments blow an engine or need new tires, how are they going to be able to pay for it? That's what this money should be used for."
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.
Santee Circle Rural Volunteer Fire Department is one of 25 rural fire departments in Berkeley County. Wade Spees/Staff Friday, June 20, 2014×
Berkely County Councilman Ken Gunn×
Fire Tax Advisory Board Chairman Marty Housand×
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