Mt. Gilead Fire Department assets seized by county

Posted By | September 3, 2002 12:00 am

Kim Swindell Wood
After several weeks of complaints regarding financial matters of the Mt. Gilead Fire Department, the White County Firemen’s Association voted unanimously on Thursday to allow the county to freeze the assets of the troubled organization.
Denny Mitchell, county attorney, and Herd Sullivan, White County executive, both explained the series of events, which led to requesting the seizure of the property. According to Sullivan, the department was not paying its bills, and their bank account was overdrawn. “I had a warrant served on me for a bill owed by Mt. Gilead,” said Sullivan. “What the people have to understand is the county is not responsible for their [Mt. Gilead] bills.”
Sullivan explained the county allots the volunteer fire departments a specific amount of money during each fiscal year. However, the individual departments do not have access to the money. They must submit a bill to the county for any items purchased, and the county pays the bill for them from their particular allotment. Any money garnered from fundraisers is placed in a separate bank account, which is only accessible to that particular fire department. The county has no control over how the fundraising money is spent.
Sullivan said he wanted the Firemen’s Association to give him some ideas on what they felt should be done about the predicament. “It will be bad if the county has to pull equipment, but it looks like we’re to that point,” he said.
According to Sullivan, the Mt. Gilead Fire Department’s checking account was overdrawn by $2,000. The department currently owes $2,513 to C & S Communications, an unspecified amount to Wireless Solutions and $156 to William Byberg for locksmith services.
Ed Kay, Sparta fire chief, said he had received phone calls about bills owed by Mt. Gilead. According to Kay, the individuals were specifically looking for Edward Hensley, the Mt. Gilead fire chief.
Hensley was the center of discussion regarding the administrative negligence of Mt. Gilead Fire Department. “I think he has some personal liability for these matters,” said Mitchell. “He needs to cooperate with us.”
According to Kay, Hensley was told about the meeting, but he did not attend.
Several firefighters expressed concern about the public’s image of them because of the negative circumstances surrounding Mt. Gilead’s department. One firefighter said, “It looks bad on every one of us.”
William Byberg, a certified locksmith, was present at the meeting inquiring about payment on his bill. “Can anyone just create a volunteer fire department?” he said.
“That’s an issue that has been asked time and time again,” said Kay. “There are no regulations or specific definitions in the state law. There are some minimal things that must be defined.”
“People don’t realize what’s going on,” said Byberg.
“It’s got to stop and stop now,” said Kay.
Mitchell was asked his opinion about how the association should proceed. “I think the county should take possession of the building and equipment and get a new administration in there,” he said. “That’s the only solution I see, and we can do that rather quickly. The county owns the property and most of the equipment.”
According to Mitchell, the building, which houses the fire department, is deeded to the county. Bob Cunningham, owner of White County Lumber Company, had donated the land, with the condition the fire department would stay functional and serve the community. Cunningham’s business, along with several industries in the fire district, would be affected by the lack of immediate fire protection in the area.
“Nobody wants to put that fire department out of business,” said Kay, in response to a question about fire protection in the Mt. Gilead community. “There are some trained individuals from previous days.”
Kay said he believed the firemen’s association needed to make a plea to the community. He said he had checked the distance from the Mt. Gilead fire district to surrounding fire districts, and he believed everyone in Mt. Gilead was covered in the five-mile radius, which is required to maintain a Class 9 insurance rating. According to Kay, Sparta, Doyle, Central View and Cassville fire departments could assist with fire coverage until Mt. Gilead is reestablished as a viable department.
According to Sullivan, the new administration would take over with a ‘clean slate’. The new Mt. Gilead fire chief would not have the burden of outstanding debts and would be able to reorganize the department to provide professional and quality service.
“Whoever would take over would need to audit the department,” said Mitchell. “There is some personal liability for whoever signed off on the bills.”
Mark Holland, White County Firemen’s Association president, said the association would assist in any area where they were needed. “In order for us to do this, Herd and Denny need our recommendation,” said Holland, referring to proceeding with the seizure of the Mt. Gilead fire department assets.
Several firefighters said the Mt. Gilead community should decide whom they wanted to run the department. “I recommend going to David Cole,” said George Barlow, mayor of Doyle. “He was very instrumental in helping build it up in the very beginning. I also believe Doyle will be willing to help until this can be resolved.”
Along with Barlow, White County Commissioners Terry Alley and Jerry Lowery were also attendance. Alley expressed his desire to see the Mt. Gilead Fire Department become operational again as soon as possible.
The association voted unanimously, with Mt. Gilead abstaining, to give the county their endorsement for seizing the fire department’s assets. Mitchell advised action should be taken immediately. Mitchell and Sullivan requested a sheriff’s deputy meet them at the fire department, that night where the locks were changed, and a notice was placed on the door advising citizens of the action.
A public meeting has been scheduled for 7 p.m., Sept. 12, 2002, at the Mt. Gilead Fire Department building, to discuss the need and desire to reestablish the department. Everyone in the community, and all interested individuals, are encouraged to attend.
For more information contact Herd Sullivan, White County Executive, at 836-3203 or Mark Holland, White County Firemen’s Association president, at 761-3573.

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