CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Growing friction between Jefferson County’s seven volunteer fire companies and the new umbrella agency that oversees them came to a head Thursday before the Jefferson County Commission.
The commissioners spoke with one voice when they said the volunteers, all members of the Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association, must provide regular audits showing how they spend the $61,000 the county gives each fire department every year.
Ronald Fletcher, president of the Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association, in a letter he read to the commission, said association members understand the need to ensure that the funds given to the individual fire companies are accountable.
He said the volunteers are aware that the county commission has instructed the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency (JCESA) to order the volunteer companies to provide audits of their books showing how they spend their $61,000 in annual appropriations.
“All county agencies provide full audits of how they spend public funds,” commission President Patsy Noland told Fletcher. If the fire companies refuse to provide audits, the commission will use the $61,000 to hire and pay for paid firefighters.
“That way, we will be able to account for the funds,” she said.
“Audits are sound business practices,” Commissioner Walt Pellish said.
Each fire department wants to decide how to spend its county funds on its own.
“The JCESA is the designated agency to distribute the funds,” Pellish said. Giving an equal amount to all seven departments every year is not the best solution, he said.
All of the volunteer departments depend more on donations and fundraising for their operating expenses than they do on county money.
Every fire department has different needs, the commissioners said. A new department needs more money to build up their equipment and facilities.
“There’s no easy solution,” Commissioner Frances Morgan said. “The fire departments (all are incorporated) are historically independent and fiercely so. They are not fully public agencies and they don’t want to change their identity.”
She said the volunteer companies are not yet ready to operate like public agencies.
“We are public and we’re not,” Fletcher said. “We’re stuck in the middle.”
“It’s changing, but it’s going to take a while,” Douglas Pittinger, director of the JCESA, said after the meeting.