CHIPLEY — Tempers flared as the Washington County Board of Commissioners discussed the county fire department’s spending during Thursday’s BOCC meeting in Chipley.
Resident Nan Thompson came before the board with questions about fire department expenditures that she had discovered through a search of public records.
“I’ve discovered some discrepancies with the Washington County Fire Department in Sunny Hills,” Thompson said, “and they concern me. I feel like this is important to me as a taxpayer.”
Thompson said the Sunny Hills Fire Department operated as a 501(c)3 non-profit from 2009 to 2010, even as the department remained under the administration of the Washington County government. “For a couple of years, according to the minutes, the fire department was operating as both a 501(c)3 and as a county department,” she said.
In 2010, the fire department also purchased $910 worth of personalized jackets for department members which were distributed as Christmas presents, Thompson said. “I can understand spending tax money on equipment that stays with the department, but if you give someone a gift, then it no longer belongs to the county.” She added that personalizing clothing would make it unlikely to be reused by other department members. “Someone else is not going to want to wear a T-shirt with my name on it,” Thompson said.
She also said that the department had given out $587 worth of flashlights as gifts to department members. “I have no problem with purchasing flashlights for use by the department, but giving them away?” Thompson said she thought the county should seek reimbursement for the expenditures.
Thompson also told the board that records showed volunteers had been paid by the fire department for volunteering their time. “If you are getting paid, are you really a volunteer?” Thompson asked.
She also questioned the purchase of a computer and a computer tablet by the fire department at the cost of $1,740. “I would hope these are kept in a secure location at the fire department and not being used for personal use.”
She also questioned the board about the fuel expenses of the Sunny Hills department compared to other county fire departments and the recent purchase of building materials.
Fire Chief Al Gothard told the commissioners that every purchase the fire department made was done so on a county purchase order approved by either former county administrator Steve Joyner or former EMS director Roger Hagan.
“Every purchase we’ve ever made was approved, and went through the proper channels,” Gothard said.
Thompson also said that the fire department’s training records are incomplete, a problem which could affect the community’s ISO rating, which in turn affects home insurance prices.
“The meeting notes are vary vague,” Thompson said. “I talked to a representative of the ISO and he said the notes have to state exactly who did what, and that is not there.”
Thompson said she only found records for 10 hours of training at the department. “They have $4,000 in extrication equipment and only 10 hours of training. And this is the department that is supposed to be leading the way for all the other departments,” Thompson said.
Commissioner Lynn Gothard, who is married to Fire Chief Al Gothard, asked Thompson if she had gone to the fire chief for answers before coming to the board.
“Did you have anything to do with the TV reporter being here this morning?” Gothard asked Thompson, referring to WHJG’s reporter Bergen Baucom, who was in attendance.
“Your questions aren’t impartial,” Commissioner Joel Pate said to Gothard. “She’s got a vested interest in the fire department.”
Chairman Alan Bush said he would like Thompson to present her findings to Fire Chief Gothard and allow him a chance to reply to the questions at a future date.
“I would like the board to consider some of the things I asked for,” Thompson said. “It looks like on a lot of things the county dropped the ball.”
Thompson suggested the county contact the state Fire Chiefs Association to conduct an independent audit of the fire department, but Commissioner Todd Abbott said the process could be handled in house.
“We have a county inventory control clerk,” Abbott said.
Fire Chief Gothard said that during his tenure as a department head, he has received no direction from the county and no instruction in county policy.
“It’s the responsibility of the new department head to learn his policies,” Pate said.
“Every purchase I ever made was approved by Roger Dale (Hagan),” Fire Chief Gothard said. “I have 31 years of experience in fire service, and she’s got zero.”