Volunteer/county tensions

Published 6:45 pm Tuesday, May 29, 2018

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Windsor Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Dale Scott asked the Town of Windsor May 22 to send a letter to Isle of Wight County asking to restore full funding to the volunteer organization. 

The request stemmed from the county’s decision to retain the annual Aid to Localities (ATL) grants that in the past were doled out to the fire organizations as part of the annual contribution.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Isle of Wight, in turn, has its own reasons for changing how that money is distributed, according to Isle of Wight County Administrator Randy Keaton. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Scott’s request underscores the tensions that continue to exist between the volunteer fire and rescue departments and the county, which contributes the bulk of the agencies’ funding. 

A meeting that Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice described as a “line in the sand,” is scheduled for Aug. 2 and is expected to address a host of concerns voiced by the volunteers over funding and other issues.  

During his request to the Town Council, Scott said the county is using the Aid to Localities grant to cover its operating expenses and wants that money sent back to the departments.

The grants, which are given to localities each year by the state, are used for unbudgeted items and only apply to fire departments. The towns of Windsor and Smithfield also get a separate allocation. 

In an email, Scott said his department’s contribution from the county has decreased by 20 percent over the past two years and it is having difficulty meeting its equipment needs, such as replacing gas monitors. 

Scott said the changes represent bait and switch tactics and a shell game, as he believes the funds are being diverted from the volunteers and to the county’s emergency services department. 

During a May 10 Board meeting, Keaton explained that in the past, the ATL grant money was distributed to the county’s five fire departments, and those departments, in turn, would use the money to purchase needed items. 

The problem arose when it came time to file an annual report to the state accounting for how the money was spent, said Keaton. 

The departments would be asked to submit invoices and receipts, but that may or may not have been done in a timely or thorough manner, said Keaton. 

And if the state decided to audit the county’s reports and there are unexplained expenditures, Isle of Wight would be responsible for covering those, Keaton said, adding that the state’s requirements have also become more stringent in terms of reporting. 

To streamline the process for the current fiscal year, Isle of Wight decided to retain the grant money and use it to purchase new turn-out gear, as all the departments needed updated equipment, said Keaton. 

As that worked well, Keaton said the county decided to do that again for the upcoming fiscal year and again to use the grant funding to purchase turn-out gear. 

In an email, Scott said the departments were not notified of the change. 

At the May 10 meeting, Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree said that one sticking point for the town fire departments is that they also get an allocation from the town, which Isle of Wight County figures into its contribution. 

Acree said giving the ATL money back would go a long way in building trust and made that request shortly before the Board approved its budget. 

It was decided that request would be discussed at the Aug. 2 meeting. 

At that budget meeting, Newport District Supervisor William McCarty disagreed with the notion that the county was not listening to the volunteers, as it nixed a plan to establish a vehicle maintenance program after receiving objections from the volunteers. 

“We are listening,” said McCarty.

Keaton said that all fire and rescue organizations, except Smithfield, received their full funding request — or more — for fiscal 2019.

In a budget worksheet provided by Scott, the Windsor Volunteer Fire Department requested $109,800 for fiscal 2019 and was set to receive $102,300 from the county, to include $17,500 for turn out gear and which is primarily funded from ATL funds.  

In a phone interview, Acree urged the fire and rescue organizations to strengthen its Fire and Rescue Association and use that as a way to collectively address concerns. 

Emergency Services

During the discussion with the Windsor Town Council, the question arose about how long the current Emergency Services Chief, Jeff Terwilliger, had been on the job. 

Terwilliger was hired three years ago by former Isle of Wight County Administrator Ann Seward, whose plan to force the fire and rescue organizations to sign a facilities use agreement caused a serious and rancorous rift, and led to Acree winning a seat on the Board. 

Acree, who served as chief of the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department until he was elected the Windsor District Supervisor in 2015, understands the divide between the volunteers and the county. 

At the same time, the view may be different from the other side of the dais. 

“I’m stumped … I’ve met an impasse,” said Acree during a discussion recently by the Board over the ATL funding. Acree said he had received numerous emails about how the money was being distributed, but said that it seemed like the county was trying to relieve the burden of financial concerns on the volunteers. 

During a phone conversation last week, Acree said the volunteers are worried that the county is trying to control more than the money and hopes the August “line in the sand” meeting will go a long way to quell those issues. 

Conversations with various fire and rescue volunteers have revealed concerns about Terwilliger and whether the county is headed toward a completely paid organization — and whether funding disputes are a symptom of that possible agenda. 

Scott told the Windsor Town Council that the Emergency Services budget had gone up by 8 percent for fiscal 2019. 

And during a phone conversation after the call for the meeting in August, Grice said that he was also concerned about recent hiring decisions in the Emergency Services Department, calling it a “fiefdom.” 

Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson said much of the budget increase was driven by personnel — such as the hiring of a captain, adjustments in holiday pay and overtime and boosting the salaries of EMT professionals. 

This was all done to make the operational effort more effective and to retain competent staff, said Robertson.

It’s not known how this is perceived as a way to take over the volunteer operation, he said. 

In addition to the legion of volunteers serving Isle of Wight, the county also retains the services of about 100 paid fire and rescue personnel to fill in the gaps. 

Robertson said the Department of Emergency Services was established at the request of the volunteers in the first place, and now it’s seen as a way to undermine the volunteers. 

“We want to work with the volunteers to make sure the citizens get the best service possible, but there seems to be a resistance to work together on all phases,” said Robertson.

“We need to figure out how to bridge that gap,” he said. 

In an email, Scott elaborated his position. 

“Input from the volunteer agencies needs to be utilized and not just listened to as a mere courtesy.  Unfortunately it seems that many times our elected representatives rely too heavily on county staff and do not utilize the experience, knowledge and input from the volunteer agencies who actually provide these services to our fellow citizens,” said Scott, adding that he’s optimistic that the differences can be resolved.  {/mprestriction}