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The good news is that the Gravel Switch Fire Department has enough members with sufficient training to maintain its status as an official department.
The bad news is that the department has missed out on more than $16,000 in state aid during the past two years due to a financial reporting issue.
Those topics were part of the discussion at a Jan. 16 meeting at the Gravel Switch Community Center about the status of the department. The audience of around 50 people included community members, firefighters from Gravel Switch and neighboring departments, and county and state officials.
“The number one reason we’re here is because we realize how important this community is to Marion County,” Marion County Judge/Executive John G. Mattingly said. “And the other thing is it’s got to have good fire protection.
Mattingly said the Gravel Switch department is the only one in the county that is not attached to an incorporated city, but the community has always supported the department in other ways.
“We had this meeting because there are some potential compliance issues,” Mattingly said.
He added that he wasn’t there to point fingers at anyone, but rather to give support and encouragement.
Scott Lawson, a Marion Countian who was recently named a Kentucky State Fire Commission board member, and Bruce Roberts, a division director for the fire commission, addressed those concerns.
Lawson has been on the Lebanon Fire Department for 29 years, is a member of the Danville Fire Department and is a fire instructor. He said his primary concern is safety.
Lawson said he was told Gravel Switch was down to five members, so he requested a roster from the department. He received a roster that listed 15 members, which was verified by the fire commission.
“To be legal or to be recognized in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, you have to have 13 members,” Lawson said.
Roberts explained that having a minimum of 13 members (12 members and a chief) is important. He said if a department does not have at least 13 members, then its firefighters would not be eligible for worker’s compensation if they were injured en route to or at a fire scene.
Roberts added that according to the most recent roster he’s seen, Gravel Switch has 14 members on its roster.
“You really need to watch how many you have,” he said.
Community resident Alma Wheeler raised her own concerns, saying anyone can be listed on a roster. She questioned if all the firefighters knew what to do based on what she saw when Chief Larry Vaughn’s house caught on fire (which occurred in 2009).
“Several of them didn't even know how to work with the fire,” Wheeler said.
Roberts said according to his records, all of the department's current members have completed the 150 hours of training needed to be considered certified firefighters.
The department’s finances were another focus during the meeting.
The Marion County Fiscal Court sets aside $22,000 annually for each of the five county fire departments. Those payments are distributed in two payments of $11,000 in July and January provided that the departments turn in a roster, an inventory of equipment, and their financial records for the previous fiscal year.
Every fire department in Kentucky is also eligible for state aid payments annually as long as they meet the state’s requirements.
But Gravel Switch has not received a state aid payment since it received $8,250 in 2010, according to Roberts.
To receive that state aid, a department must turn in receipts for approved purchases from the previous year, and those receipts must be equal to or greater than the amount of its state aid payment.
The Gravel Switch department received its 2010 payment because it turned in its receipts from 2009. The department did not receive a payment in 2011 because no proof of purchase was turned in from 2010, but that’s not the only year that is affected, according to Roberts.
“You will not receive another state aid check from us until we get the paperwork to go back to cover that $8,250 that was spent from the 2010 check,” Roberts said.
He did say the commission could issue checks for 2011 and 2012 if it receives receipts for eligible purchases from 2010 and 2011. Once those receipts are turned in, the department could receive $16,400 in payments from the fire commission.
Mattingly said hopefully those receipts from 2010 and 2011 can be located and submitted to the fire commission.
“That’d be my number one goal,” he said.
Gene Lanham asked how the community could help. Roberts replied that it’s really up to the fire department to come up with the documentation.
Belinda Vaughn, who is the chief’s wife and the department secretary, said Becky Blair (the fire commission’s office coordinator) has been working with her to identify eligible receipts from 2010.
Wheeler also mentioned another possible funding source. She said grants paid for the department when it started, but the department has not received any grants recently.
“We’ve applied for grants and they’ve denied us,” said Sherry Tungate, the department’s treasurer.
Mattingly added that grant funding has become scarce in recent years, and that means not every department that applies for a grant will receive one.
Wheeler also asked how they could be assured that the money raised by the community for the fire department is spent for the department.
Mattingly said each department has to report its expenditures to the county annually. He also said transparency is important, noting that the department’s financial statements are considered open records.
According to the most recent records on file in the county judge’s office, Gravel Switch spent $17,400.70 during the 2011-12 fiscal year. The records show purchases of fire safety equipment, payments for a safety program, utilities for the department, office supplies, oil and fuel for the department’s vehicles, and a variety of miscellaneous purchases, such as batteries and supplies for the pancake breakfast (which is a fund-raiser for the department).
At last week’s meeting, Belinda Vaughn announced that the department has $19,320 as of its most recent bank statement.
Chief Vaughn defended the fire department, saying that none of the firefighters receive a dime for their work on the department.
“I will get up at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning for anybody in this room. If y’all need help, I don’t care to put my life on the line,” he said.
He continued to say that department spends nothing unless it needs equipment or gear.
“But if y’all want a statement, give me a few days to get the fire department cleaned up and I’ll be glad to have a meeting for the community,” Chief Vaughn said.
Mattingly said his pledge is to do what is best for the community and for the fire department. He added that the department should meet the requirements to receive state aid.
He continued to say that he knows people are concerned, and he added that the county has offered to take over the bookkeeping for the department.
Lanham said it’s evident that the community wants its department, and he offered to help however he can. He added that if his house catches fire, he isn’t going to stop the chief at the gate and ask if the books are in order.
“We as a community, we can support ‘em and get this thing rectified in some way,” Lanham said.
Wayne Hollen, who has previously served on the Gravel Switch department, emphasized the need for transparency.
“It’s very important that you have good records and you can cover your butt if something goes wrong,” he said.
Mattingly agreed, adding that he does not believe any funds have been misused based on the records he has received.
“We’ve all got to make sure that we have that public trust,” he said.