By Alex Bridges
WOODSTOCK - Shenandoah County leaders approved a deal with a volunteer fire company this week that lets the station move forward with building improvements.
Passage of the agreement settles a lingering dispute between the county and the Toms Brook Volunteer Fire Department over housing paid firefighters in the station.
The building needed improvements to its living quarters that would accommodate firefighters staying in the station. The county will provide $95,000 to cover the cost of the improvements. Part of the dispute also centered on the department's utility costs to house the firefighters and county emergency vehicles.
The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 on Tuesday to approve the memorandum of agreement with the department. Supervisors John R. Neese and Cindy Bailey voted against approving it.
"I think it sets a precedent for other fire departments," Bailey said.
Bailey suggested the county Department of Fire and Rescue staff the station with firefighters in 12-hour shifts. The county agency could use firefighters budgeted in the current fiscal year, she said. This arrangement would eliminate the housing issue at the station, Bailey added.
Neese said he understood that the volunteer departments, not the county, are responsible for providing housing areas for all emergency responders.
Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley noted the contract states that should the volunteer fire department disband, the county would get its money back.
"Toms Brook is in a unique situation where they have very little [financial] support from business because they don't have very many businesses in Toms Brook," Helsley said.
Chairman David Ferguson said he based his decision to support approval of the agreement on the need of the volunteer fire department. Ferguson said the only other option would be to take the paid firefighters out of the station.
"Even those volunteers would need a safe place to sleep," Ferguson said. To encourage volunteerism you really need to have a facility that's going to be able to facilitate them spending time there safely. That can't be done with the resources they have right now.
The agreement includes a clause that states the county will transfer up to $4,000 out of any remaining funds for the project to the volunteer group as reimbursement for "certain extraordinary gas-utility expenditures incurred in the winter season of 2013-2014."
Supervisors discussed the agreement at its Aug. 7 work session with representatives of the volunteer group. During the discussion, department representatives told the board the members of the organization needed to approve the agreement and likely would take up the matter at its meeting this week. Representatives noted that its members may have concerns about the $4,000 reimbursement limit but otherwise would support the agreement.
Discussions with representatives of the department began several years ago. Then District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris helped bring forward an agreement and offer to the department to use county money to cover the cost of the necessary renovations. Supervisors agreed more than a year ago to allocate the $95,000 for the project.
The memorandum of agreement as approved calls for the county to provide the funding as budgeted and to assist the volunteer fire department with obtaining the documents needed to move forward with the project. The county has no obligation to manage construction of the improvements.
The volunteer organization agrees to use the money to build the necessary facilities that must meet the county's satisfaction. The deal calls for the volunteer department to provide adequate space for the paid firefighters. The organization also must provide the county with a professionally audited statement of the volunteer department's finances and a copy of its tax return as a nonprofit entity.
County Administrator Mary T. Price explained that the contract to perform the work will be between the volunteer fire department and the construction firm. The volunteer agency will pass each invoice to the county for which the organization will be reimbursed, Price said. The county will conduct the required building inspections on the project.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org