Fire department calls foul

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Raywick Fire Department seeks more money as it investigates misuse of funds

By Stevie Lowery

The Raywick Fire Department is sending out letters and collecting annual dues from area households, but there still remain unanswered questions regarding the possible misuse of department funds by its former chief.

In July, former Raywick Fire Chief Chuck Helm resigned saying that his out-of-town job commitments caused him to be away from the community too much. However, following Helm's resignation, the department began an internal investigation into possible misuse of funds, and that investigation is ongoing.

In a written statement to the Enterprise, Helm said he would address any issues with the fire department, but not by means of the newspaper.

"I have not been presented with any information to substantiate the accusations that have been made by certain members of the Raywick Fire Department," Helm wrote. "I will be happy to address any issues at hand but not in the local media as this is not the proper place to do so."

Lebanon attorney Elmer George, who will be assisting the Raywick Fire Department with this matter, said the department hasn't completed their investigation yet. But, they have found enough evidence to prove that the department's funds were definitely misused, George said.

"They have gone through records for the previous year, and those records show substantial abuse of the department's money," he said. "We believe the sum is going to be very, very substantial."

According to George, the department is in the process of doing an audit of the previous years that Helm was the chief. He had been Raywick's fire chief since 2004.

"Some of the funds that were in the Raywick Fire Department's account come from federal sources, as well as state and local," George said.

Don Blanford, the fire department's treasurer, said he and his fellow firefighters are doing everything they can to fully investigate the scope of the problem and get it resolved. In the meantime, the department continues to operate normally, he said.

"We are operational, we are functional, and we are going to continue to be that way," Blanford said.

In August, Herman Riggs was appointed to be Raywick's new fire chief. According to Riggs, the department is making progress with its internal investigation.

"I see light at the end of the tunnel," Riggs said.

In addition to the investigation, Riggs said the department has had several new members join and it's starting to receive dues from local citizens.

"We need all those we can get," he said.

And, while the Raywick Fire Department is an independent organization, the Marion County Fiscal Court gives money to the department annually. Usually, the county gives the department two allocations - $11,000 in July and another $11,000 in January, according to Marion County Judge/Executive John G. Mattingly. Last year, the county gave a $10,000 grant to the department and also gave them a $50,000 loan toward the construction of its new building. As a result, the county now withholds $5,000 per allocation to use toward the payment of that loan, which they are expected to pay back within the next five years.

According to Marion County Attorney Joe Mattingly, the county has been made aware of concerns about the financial management at the Raywick Fire Department.

"The county certainly has a keen interest in that issue simply because taxpayer dollars are allocated to all of our fire departments to provide that service and they are expected to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Mattingly said. "It's our understanding that the fire department's internal investigation is ongoing and that the county will be provided the conclusion of their investigation. We'll await their report."