Following months of controversy that have roiled the waters of the St. James Lanark Village Volunteer Fire Department, Franklin County commissioners took a firm stand Tuesday, voting to ask the circuit judge to order a new election of the board members overseeing the department.
In addition, commissioners voted unanimously not to include the regular scheduled disbursement of the fire department monies on the list of bills to be approved at the April 19 regular meeting, and to weigh an ordinance at that time whether to freeze the department’s Municipal Service Benefits Unit (MSBU) funding and perhaps shift it to neighboring departments.
The flurry of actions came after County Coordinator Michael Morón reported that neither Chief David Curry nor other members of the three-person board had responded last month to a dispatch request to address a vehicle fire.
Morón said he personally tried to contact both Curry and Assistant Chief Michelle Lawson, his sister, using telephone numbers provided to him by County Commissioner Bert Boldt. He said he also reached out to Carrabelle Fire Chief Carl Whaley and Eastpoint Fire Chief George Pruett for additional contact info, and asked the sheriff’s office to have a deputy drive by the site of the fire, which involved a car in the process of being towed.
“There was no contact in 10 days (from) the chief or any representatives,” said Morón. “Having a fire department that does not respond to calls or cannot be contacted for an extended period of time is not acceptable.”
Boldt said he has been “intimately involved” with the department’s situation, and reminded colleagues that “we have no authority to go in and micromanage crews that are responsible for (firefighting).
“(There has been) no specific, pivotal, documented fact until this right now,” he said. “This now, in my opinion, is the pivot point. We can now start looking at the use of MSBU funds.
“This issue cascades with all the other issues (where) we have had no response.” Boldt said. “I’ve even gone to their home and tried to talk to the fire chief and was ignored.”
Boldt suggested the commission consider taking charge of the roughly $60,000 in annual MSBU funds disbursed to the district, which are assessments levied on all land parcels, and consider dispensing them to other volunteer fire departments, such as Carrabelle and Alligator Point, to have them assume responsibility for coverage of Lanark Village.
Commissioner Jessica Ward, whose district borders Boldt’s but does not include Lanark Village, said she too had reached out to other fire chiefs and that while they were willing to provide mutual aid, they were wary of assuming primary responsibility.
“When you’re responding from Carrabelle or Alligator Point, that’s a pretty long drive to get to an emergency. They were concerned about that,” she said. “They’re volunteer and there’s no guarantee they will be available.”
She went on to address a growing concern among the county’s firefighters, that an aging, non-local population may be increasingly unwilling to staff these volunteer departments.
“I don’t really want to say this because I’m not in favor of it, but we might have to eventually look at county-paid, funded fire departments,” she said. “Volunteers are feeling few and far between. As time moves forward we may not have the option for volunteers. There may not be interest in people doing this volunteer stuff.”
She said the immediate challenge was to determine the most effective and productive way to respond to the absence of a viable fire department in Lanark.
“They’re receiving MSBU funds and they’re getting this money to have volunteers respond,” Ward said. “Them not showing up to a call is a a misappropriation of funds. They shouldn’t get these funds if they can’t show up to a call. They’re ignoring everybody.”
Commissioner Smokey Parrish said relying on neighboring departments may pose problems.
“You have these apartments, these old Army barracks, and one of them catches on fire they all catching on fire,” he said. “And they’ll burn to the ground before they get there.”
He said that turning to a concerned citizens group that formed last fall, elected officers in December, and continues as a vocal critic of the existing board, also could be problematic and take upwards of a year to put in place.
“If they (the existing board) don’t relinquish control, you have to create a whole new non-profit,” Parrish said. “Meantime you have no coverage unless they voluntarily give up the non-profit they got. You cannot just go (in) and take over that non-profit.”
He said turning to paid firefighters could prove cost-prohibitive,
“You know what their MSBU is going to be? it’s not going to be $50 no more,” he said. “That’s going to go through the roof because nobody wants to volunteer. The ISO (fire rating) will go way down so homeowners insurance will go through the roof because they don’t have any fire coverage.
“The MSBU is supposed to send people to training (to meet) all these different statutory requirements. I don’t know if any of that’s been done in Lanark Village,” Parrish said. “It’s a tough situation but if we have to go to a paid fire department, somebody’s going to pay and it’s not going to be cheap.”
Boldt said that at a December meeting with about 50 people in attendance, the concerned citizens group elected a new volunteer board willing to step in. “They tell me they have 12 volunteers willing to step up to the plate with the new board, with administrative talent that is there,” he said. “With 12 to 15 willing volunteers to go out and fight fires. This would be a new reset button.”
In his analysis, County Attorney Michael Shuler advised “the best thing would be to go to court and compel a new election (of the existing board). One issue is Mr. Curry is refusing to turn over the bylaws that state how an election is to be conducted.
“He can’t ignore the judge, at least not for long,” he said. “The second board doesn’t sound like it’s viable to me.”
Shuler said the judge is likely to weigh the situation as an emergency before ruling on whether to authorize an election.
“And the results will be whatever the people vote on,” he said. “I don’t think we should ask the judge to remove the officers at this point. The judge may be reluctant to remove an existing board if there’s not a new board in place.
He said his initial thought is to have Franklin County put the supervisor of elections office in charge of conducting the balloting, just as it has in several other instances.