By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL - Warren County took over the troubled Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department after officials shut down the organization Tuesday.
The fire company's failure to follow recommendations of an audit completed more than a year ago spurred county officials to take the action. Problems persisted even after Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services took over part of the station's operation.
Boards of Supervisors for Warren and Clarke counties adopted a joint resolution at separate meetings that afternoon to dissolve and terminate the organization. The resolution also called for the Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services to immediately take possession of the station at 6363 Howellsville Road and to assume responsibilities for providing coverage in the affected area that spans both counties.
Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie belayed fears the station would no longer operate. Instead, Mabie explained the county will staff the station with paid fire and rescue workers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Members of the volunteer company, upon hearing the news, went to the station at 6363 Howellville Road during the course of the afternoon to retrieve personal items. Deputies with the Warren County Sheriff's Office were also at the station.
Chris Lichvar, district chief of the volunteer department, while at the station Tuesday afternoon, said he declined to comment.
Mabie expressed optimism in the company's future and explained that in the coming weeks the county plans to start a volunteer drive for the station. Many of the station's 23 active and inactive volunteers may likely return to the station, Mabie said. Any applicants would need to go through the county's process for recruiting volunteers that includes background checks and other steps, Mabie said.
"There's some good people here," Mabie said.
Warren County supervisors held a special meeting and met in closed session briefly before taking action. Clarke County supervisors took action at their regular meeting.
"This action has not been taken lightly, and comes only after a substantial period of time during which the Fire Company was given every assistance and ample opportunity to correct the many operational and administrative problems," states a press release issued by both counties Tuesday.
Attorneys for the counties filed injunctions in the courts seeking to preserve the volunteer department's assets, including equipment and vehicles, acquired with public funds.
The press release outlines a history of problems at the station. Community dissatisfaction with the company first surfaced in 2010 when the department failed to adequately respond to a house fire near the station, the release notes.
Complaints about financial irregularities prompted the counties to commission an audit. The audit, completed in June 2011, offered a long list of such irregularities classified by the auditor as either malfeasance or misfeasance. The audit also came with a long list of recommendations to secure and account for department supplies and personal property.
An investigation into the department by law enforcement resulted in no criminal charges.
As a result of the audit, both counties withheld public funds until Warren County's fire department took over the review and approval of invoices. The volunteer station still controlled direct donations and money collected through fundraising, the release notes. As such, the county department did not have oversight of these funds.
- Excessive use of gasoline. The fire company insisted on the installation of a bulk gasoline tank. A camera placed on the tank to document use was found destroyed and inoperable. The company rebuffed efforts by the county department to require documentation. Warren County removed the tank and the company installed another over the county's objection.
- Members were seen drinking alcohol and returning to the station.
- Members took vehicles out of the first-due area in order to dine at a local restaurant during which time they were seen drinking alcohol
- Members suspended and barred from the station stayed on the premises
- Non-members were allowed to ride on vehicles to emergency calls
- An "obscene snowman" was made on the company property and a photograph of the snowman appeared on Facebook
- Reporting problems show the first two months of this year, seven of the 30 reports are missing for January, 10 of 19 missing for February
- The company operated without an approved budget for the current fiscal year and disregarded bylaws for January administrative elections
- At least nine members resigned from the company as a result of its direction
The press release also levied criticism at some members of the former company for wanting the organization to operate as it had before the county took over.
"At the end of the day, the citizens of Clarke and Warren Counties were not receiving a benefit for the investment made in the Fire Company," the release states.
Officials also indicate the company failed to respond to 30 percent of the calls for service it received this year through March. Responses were delayed, understaffed or responded to with inappropriate vehicles, according to the release. Almost half the reported, operational members did not respond to a call in the first three months of this year, the release states.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or email@example.com