Last week, Gadsden County commissioners approved an interlocal fire and rescue service agreement with the Town of Greensboro.
In November, the Town of Greensboro and a separate volunteer-created agency, consisting of the town’s former firefighters, both asked to be awarded the contract.
In April, the firefighters split from the town, after the firefighters accused the town of misusing funds from the county that were supposed to be allocated for the fire department; according to the firefighters, instead of funding repairs, purchasing equipment and safety gear, the town instead used the fire fund to pay for office supplies and the salary and benefits of the town’s clerk.
In November, when the interlocal agreement’s renewal came before the county commissioners, both the town and the newly-formed volunteer agency asked to be awarded the agreement.
Instead of voting on who would receive the agreement, the county commissioners encouraged both sides to work out their differences, before the board made a decision; additionally the town was instructed to provide financial statements showing how the money for the fire department was used, and the volunteers were instructed to return the county-owned gear they still possessed.
“We have received emails to the effect that they were talking, they have talked, however recently we received emails from Councilmember [Libby] Henderson informing me that they were unable to negotiate with the party,” Gadsden County Administrator Ed Dixon said. “However, they wish to continue the fire contract with the county, that they’re recruiting locally, and that they would appreciate the Board of County Commissioners approving the contract with the Town of Greensboro.”
Dixon admitted that financial statements received from the town revealed that funds meant for Greensboro’s fire department had been misused by the town.
“It was full of things that happen in a small shop,” Dixon said. “Some dimes go to the necessity of having somebody at an office or buying some things.
However, Dixon said he didn’t see anything so far out the way that would push him to request that the board sever the contract on that basis.
None of the Greensboro officials were present at the meeting.
Dr. Joe Parramore, appeared before the board on behalf of Greensboro Volunteer Fire Department, Inc.
He first addressed the comments Councilwoman Libby Henderson submitted to the board.
“The Town of Greensboro has not made any attempt to engage the Greensboro Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. at any point in time,” Parramore said. “We, on the other hand, have extended several different olive branches, including a sample Memorandum of Understanding of how we could work together to provide the fire service for the Town of Greensboro.”
Parramore had emailed a detailed plan to the town, outlining a private/public partnership between the Town of Greensboro and Greensboro Volunteer Fire Department, Inc.
However, Parramore said he received no response.
A copy of the proposal, which was addressed to Town Council President Bill Willis and Town Manager Dennis Henderson, was also sent to members of the Gadsden County Board of Commissioners.
During the meeting, Parramore identified what he says are critical elements in the town’s fire department’s 2020 annual report.
He said in 2020, the fire department had three hazmat calls, two medical calls, 43 vehicle wrecks and 30 fire-related calls.
“Of those calls, six of them were in Greensboro proper, for an estimated seven percent,” Parramore noted. “75 of those calls, or an estimated 93 percent, were located within Gadsden County, outside the Town of Greensboro.”
As for the fire department’s funding sources, Parramore said the allocation was $31,785, which he said was 98 percent of the town’s final budget for fire services.
Parramore said the other two percent was a $500 donation.
Parramore noted that Greensboro budgeted nothing from their own monies for their fire department.
“There were zero dollars contributed to the fire service from the town of Greensboro,” Parramore said. “I think those numbers speak volumes to the services that the volunteers provide in that particular district.”
Parramore also addressed the allegation from the town that the firefighters had abandoned Greensboro, which he said has been repeatedly made.
“We would never abandon our call of service,” Parramore.
He then referenced the April Greensboro council meeting.
“Where explicitly we were asked by [Libby] Henderson to leave, and that’s what we did,” Parramore said.
Parramore said he doesn’t think he and the members of the volunteer fire department will ever agree with Dixon’s stance on the budget.
“When 65-75 percent of a $31,000 budget is spent on expenditures unrelated to fire, and rescue, I don’t consider that dimes,” Parramore said. “I consider that significant.”
Parramore said he is doing his due diligence in recovering the equipment that had not been returned.
Parramore said Gadsden County Fire Coordinator Andre Walker met with Town Manager Dennis Henderson, and acquired an equipment list, from the town of Greensboro and firefighter personnel files of equipment that was issued and signed by the firefighters and town personnel.
Parramore said there were eight individuals that the town had equipment lists on that was part of the Town of Greensboro prior to when former Assistant Chief Daniel Hunter had anything to do with the Town of Greensboro.
He said the date on those equipment lists were from 2011 and 2012 – making them vastly outdated and unreliable.
“I think it’s preposterous to think 10 or 11 years down the road, a new assistant chief to Greensboro at the time and anyone subsequent to him, has the means to recover equipment that is 10 or 11 or 12 years old because of the towns lack of due diligence in maintaining their records,” Parramore said.
Parramore said they do not have contact information for some of the individuals listed in the records.
“I don’t even know these individuals, or where they came from,” Parramore added. “I think it’s important for the commission to know these records came from Mr. Henderson, the town manager.”
Parramore also noted that there were five firefighters that had equipment that he was able to recover and return to Chief Walker.
That included radios, pagers and bunker gear.
“The Town of Greensboro has not once reached out to us to seek an amicable agreement, but we’ve continued to try to work with them, and we will continue to try to work with them,” Parramore said.
Lastly, Parramore said the Town of Greensboro is not currently capable of providing fire and rescue services, even if awarded the agreement.
“Greensboro does not have a fire department; they have no firefighters; they have not responded to a call since March,” Parramore said.
Parramore said the nonprofit volunteer fire department has 13 individuals who are certified firefighters and ready to respond.
He said six of those firefighters are in Greensboro’s direct fire district, with one of them living three blocks away from the fire station.
Parramore said the other six are secondary responders from other departments.
“We stand ready to serve the town of Greensboro, and the unincorporated areas of Gadsden County,” Parramore said.
After hearing from Parramore, Commission Chair Anthony Viegbesie said he was very heartbroken to see that personalities were standing in the way of citizens of Gadsden County receiving fire protection and fire services.
Commissioner Kimblin NeSmith, who represents Greensboro, said he is knowledgeable of the entire history of the situation.
Kimblin said he has also heard from public officials and residents in the town who said they want their own fire services.
NeSmith said he is still hopeful that the members of the Greensboro Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. and the Town of Greensboro can mend their relationship.
NeSmith also pointed out that the Town of Greensboro does maintain autonomy, and they decide who they allow into their municipality, their jurisdiction.
Commissioner Ronterrious Green was not as hopeful.
“Based upon information by both parties – that I paid a whole lot of attention to – I don’t see it happening,” Green said, of mending relationships.
Green inquired about the purpose of the funding.
“You stated it had been used for other purposes and other things, which seems not to be illegal, but we have documentation that 65 or 70 percent has gone towards other things,” Green said. “I thought we were giving it to [Greensboro to] provide and to support the fire services, so I guess I’m a little confused on the purpose of the funding.
Green said he would like for the funds to strictly be used for fire services.
Green also said he was concerned about awarding the contract to the Town of Greensboro while they don’t have committed firefighters.
Commissioner Brenda Holt said she wants a quarterly inventory report from the Town of Greensboro.
“If you want to get the equipment, and you want to have the funds, you have to be accountable for all of it,” Holt said to the town.
Dixon said part of the county’s problem is the county itself hasn’t been very accountable in terms of maintaining and expecting those records from all municipalities it funds fire services for, not just from Greensboro.
“As we enter this next quarter, we should be getting reports from those who have been funded,” Dixon said.
NeSmith pointed out that the board has had the right to request financial records and an inventory of equipment for years.
“We allowed that ball to drop,” NeSmith said.
The commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the interlocal agreement with the Town of Greensboro.
Commissioners NeSmith, Holt and Eric Hinson voted in favor of awarding the fire and rescue service contract to the town.
Green and Viegbesie cast the two dissenting votes.
In an interview after the meeting, Chief Hunter, the town’s former assistant fire chief, said he was disappointed with the board’s decision.
“Our group was the best poised to provide fire and rescue services for, and to protect the city,” said Hunter, who now leads the newly formed Greensboro Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. “Hometown politics has taken precedence over providing public safety.”
Chief Hunter did say he was surprised and relieved to hear the county administrator admit the fire fund had been misspent by the town.
“We’re not shutting down just yet,” Chief Hunter said.
He said the volunteer fire department has applied for a $1.2 million grant, and if it is awarded it will pay for a new fire station and equipment.
He said the nonprofit fire department would provide fire services and would train anyone wanting to be a firefighter.
He said even with the grant, he doesn’t know if the county will allow them to operate.
Chief Hunter noted that they will change the name of the volunteer fire department to not cause confusion.
Neither Councilwoman Henderson nor Town Manager Henderson could be reached for comments.
Erin Hill – Gadsden County News Service