Inside Cruso Fire and RescueDepartment mulls closing meetings
CRUSO — Of all the fire districts within the county, the Cruso Fire and Rescue Department seems to be in the news more than most.
Part of it is because this group of volunteers is often called to rescue stranded hikers or others in nearby federal lands that are popular recreation spots. The rescues are costly, time consuming and high profile.
Another factor in the mix is a group of five or so Cruso residents who have persistently raised questions about district operations. Their most recent gripe is a new substation the department opened just four miles from its main station.
Department members, tired of disruptions at meetings, are proposing a by-law change they hope will allow them to take care of business more efficiently and spend their limited volunteer hours training and responding to calls.
The proposed by-law change will allow members of the public to attend only the portion of their monthly meetings where finances are reported. After that, they will have to leave. The by-law change will be discussed again at the March meeting.
Vice-chairman Larry Edwards, who stepped into the chairman’s post after the abrupt resignation of DeWayne Leatherwood, said the accountability demanded by a small group is provided for through the annual audit and monthly financial reports.
“As far as I know, we aren’t required to provide any more than that,” Edwards said.
In a later interview, County Attorney Chip Killian agreed.
“The fire district is a nonprofit organization and contracts with the county to provide a service,” he explained. “Their contract calls for them to enable interested property owners to participate in the affairs of the corporation at least at an annual meeting and to vote on a board of directors.”
As is the case with many nonprofit organizations, there are limited public disclosure requirements. Yet those raising questions wonder why there is resistant to complete disclosure if there is nothing to hide.
The district receives about $180,000 a year in tax revenue that comes through a 9.5 cents per $100 of value tax assessed by the county on all property within district boundaries. The district also receives its proportionate share of motor vehicle taxes.
Their concern dates back several years ago when a family member of a department volunteer was successfully prosecuted for charging thousands of dollars for personal use to the fire department's credit card.
While Harry Leckie calls the incident "water under the bridge," he and others are convinced inappropriate expenditure issues are still a problem. He cites the purchase of a lawn mower several years ago, ongoing questions about credit card charges and is upset about buying property and opening a substation just four miles from the main station.
He contends there are problems getting complete financial data and said the most recent audit points to flaws in the system.
The audit statement prepared by Underwood, Dills & Associates, P.C., cites internal control deficiencies within the department's finances and suggested further segregation of duties, though the letter acknowledged that would be difficult given the small staff size.
"What is boils down to is all they can look at are the figures they are given,"
Leckie said of the audit's conclusion.
Haywood County Finance Director Julie Davis said she finds little to worry about in the most recent Cruso audit. The weaknesses have to do with not having someone within the organization qualified to prepare financial statements and having too small of a staff to segregate duties — the very same problems in all the county's fire districts.
"These are firemen, not accountants," she said, noting the audits for the Cruso district have improved greatly from the days when there wasn't enough data provided for the auditor to even render an opinion.
"There is a lot of interest in Cruso because of what happened in the past, but this one doesn't look like a problem to me," she said.
Leatherwood's resignation raises questions, Leckie said, noting those closely watching department activities liked the chairman and were hopeful he was making headway.
In a letter to the board and department members, Leatherwood cited a lack of communication and harmony within the community and stated he felt the department was not moving forward. He declined to further comment on the matter but said he worded the letter in a way to "give them something to think about."
District leaders respond
Following the meeting, department volunteers talked about the issues raised by some of its residents, including their reasons for purchasing a piece of property at 770 Old Michael Road and renovating the garage on the property for a fire substation. The $15,000 investment, said Fire Chief Tim Henson, arose from a discussion more than a year ago about having equipment on property at the lower end of the district to better serve district taxpayers. The main station is not centrally located, and having volunteers drive to the far end of the district, get a truck and backtrack to a scene adds to response time, Henson said.
The new substation opened in January.
Leckie cites the purchase of a fire engine that is too heavy to cross many bridges in the district. It is an issue that was fully vetted before the county commissioners, board members say. Yes, their truck is heavier than the bridge weight limits, they admit, but so are logging and cement trucks that regularly use the bridges.
Other complaints include a reconfiguration within the main fire station where the kitchen is used for storage and a communications center was added. Allegations that the area was made into a workout room, said firefighter and part-time employee Jeb Clark, seem to center on a donated piece of exercise equipment that isn't even around anymore.
The kitchen area is no longer used for fundraising and community suppers because the department’s auxiliary disbanded and there’s no one to organize the events. Funds have been set aside in the event the group wants to start up again, Clark said.
The group of men who have been sitting in on meetings say they aren’t allowed to see the salary records of the part-time department employees and other supporting financial data that go into the reports. Clark said salaries vary from month to month, depending on who is available to cover what shifts.
There are a pool of five firefighters who sign up when they are available so the department can have a person standing ready at the station from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday when most volunteers are likely to be at work. The pay is $9 an hour.
Watchdogs or spoilers?
Residents Leckie, Tracy O’Neil, Bob Davis, Horace Edwards and Carroll Pressley said their questions have gone unanswered. They recently met with the Haywood County Board of Commissioners and will take their concerns to the district members in April when they hope changes will be enacted during the annual meeting. One-third of the nine-member board is up for election each year.
The group also still plans on attending the department meetings held the first Monday of each month, but depending on the outcome of the by-law amendment proposed by long-time board member Ned Rogers, their stay could be shortened.
Rogers said he is tired of disruptions.
“These people are coming in and interrupting and we can’t get our business done,” he said.
The by-law proposal arose out of frustration on the part of department board members who volunteer not only to handle business details, but perform required training hours on top of responding to calls.
There is a proper route to have questions answered, Chairman Edwards said, which is for community members to bring their concerns to a board member, who will then bring the issue up to the others elected to make decisions. Or, community members can submit questions in writing.
"You heard me ask the board members if they had any questions brought to them by others," he said. "Nobody had any."
Leckie said the problems come down to control and entitlement.
"The fire department wants to run it themselves and they don't want anyone else looking over their shoulder," he said.
The volunteers see it differently.
All are busy with family, jobs and other responsibilities. While they are willing to volunteer to help the community and put in the training time to do it well, they intensely dislike the turmoil.
"There's 2,500 people in this district," said Henson. "We don't hear anything except from this very small group."
"I volunteered for this," said Edwards. "I don't have to do it."
There are a number of “service districts” in Haywood County where taxpayers in a defined area pay a separate tax for an additional service. The districts are set up according to state laws and are governed by people elected from within the district.
The county contracts with the elected body to perform a service and requires an annual audit.
Below are the service districts and the tax rate requested and assessed per $100 of property value and the annual budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
West Canton $.10 $63,456
North Canton $.065 $254,920
Center Pigeon $.075 $368,316
Junaluska $.07 $345,545
Crabtree-Ironduff $.065 $241,933
Cruso $.095 $179,965
Saunook $.04 $169,042
Maggie Valley $.06 $703,214
Clyde $.09 $389,349
Jonathan Creek $.07 $441,069
Fines Creek $.09 $160,257
Lake Logan $.10 $145,356
Waynesville $.06 $191,199
Maggie Valley Country Club $.14 $100,905
Forest Park $.8 $10,831
Oak Park $.1 $22,366
Wildcat Run $.15 $4,407
Walker in the Hills $.12 $15,718
Upper Chestnut Grove $.16 $8,988
Norman Road $.15 $6,242
Tuscola Park $.11 $7,714
Fox Run $.15 $8,499
Junaluska $.60 $191,089