Funding for Washington County’s volunteer fire departments was the primary topic at the Aug. 12th workshop of the Washington County Board of County Commissioners and commissioners directed a letter be written to the various fire departments placing them on notice that they need to meet all state requirements.
by Kathy Foster
Washington County commissioners are budgeting over $640,000 annually to fund the various volunteer fire departments in the county, with dollars divided by a pre-set formula. However, commissioners made it clear at Wednesday’s workshop that they were not happy with the non-compliance of several departments in multiple areas and would consider defunding the departments if they do not increase the number of certified firefighters on their rolls and respond to more fire calls when called out, as well as meet other criteria. (Caryville has no certified firefighters, Ebro has only one and Country Oaks only has one.)
The county’s Fire Services Agreements with the various departments require that the fire departments be organized and staffed in accordance with applicable laws and regulations of the State of Florida, including minimum certification standards.
Currently the fire department volunteers are covered under the county’s Workers Compensation Insurance and commissioners said they were interested in each department or the Washington County Firefighters Association carrying that insurance in the future. Additionally, they want proof that all firefighters have needed equipment and that the equipment have required testing.
Commission Chair Alan Bush said he would like to see the fire departments handle their own liability insurance and worker’s compensation costs.
Commissioner Todd Abbott reminded his fellow commissioners that while the county is mandated to provide fire department services, they are also required to know that equipment is safe and in place.
Commissioner Lynn Gothard made it clear that she didn’t think Washington County can keep providing funds when departments are not in compliance with state mandates.
While some of the fire departments want the county to go back to an earlier contract where purchase orders were not in play, Commissioner Charles Brock was all for the PO system written into the proposed 2015-16 contract and saw it as a way to provide accountability by the fire departments.
Brock and Gothard said they were aware of instances when monies from the county were placed in an interest bearing account held only by one individual and other cases where non-fire department items were purchased with the tax dollars provided the fire departments.
Gothard suggested the county buy the fire fighting equipment and loan it to the departments. She noted, “That way the county will have ownership if the volunteer fire departments cease to function.”
Gothard said before the new budget year the departments need to be required to develop plans to bring every department into compliance with state mandates and she recommended the county require information as to how every dollar they give the fire departments is spent.
Brock agreed, noting that some fire departments are receiving money and not complying.
Discussing problems facing the Caryville Volunteer Fire Department, commissioners were pleased to hear that a new chief and assistant chief had been named at a recent Caryville council meeting.
When the discussion turned to the Country Oaks Volunteer Fire Department, Commissioner Alan Bush said he was disheartened to see the department close to disbanding after all the community has done to support the fire department.
That brought up the question of the county purchasing the land on which the department/learning center/library in Country Oaks is located. While no commissioner commented on the proposal, they made it clear they were not interested in purchase.