County, fire station fail again to reach deal

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County’s relationship with a volunteer fire company remains uncertain after supervisors failed this week to pass a deal to house paid responders at the station.

Now the county may need to pull its paid responders out of the Toms Brook Volunteer Fire Department station. The county had until Monday to reach a deal with the volunteer group on housing the paid staff.

Even though the county allocated $95,000 two years ago toward renovations at the station, primarily to bring the sleeping quarters to safety standards, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday disagreed on the scope of those improvements. Some members said plans included more amenities than needed.

Supervisors voted 4-2 against a motion to approve an agreement between the county and the Toms Brook Volunteer Fire Department. Following the vote, members talked briefly about the next step but made no definite plans to revisit the matter. Chairman David Ferguson pointed out that the county is still responsible for having paid staff respond to calls in the Toms Brook area, but from where remains uncertain.

At the meeting, Woodstock attorney Paul J. Neal Jr., who represents the volunteer department, refuted the notion that the county would be throwing money “down a rat hole.” Neal said he thought the board and the volunteers had essentially signed off on the agreement and neither he nor the organization realized the scope of the improvements were an issue. Neal said it appears the deal may be dead at this point.

County Administrator Mary T. Price said Wednesday that she was meeting with other officials to talk about the next step but could not provide information yet on the fate of the paid staff at the station. Neal said Wednesday he planned to ask county officials if they could extend the deadline.

Neal voiced surprise over the board’s vote.

“It seemed like things had gotten where we were fairly close and I guess I didn’t appreciate the significance of how strong they felt about building the absolute minimum,” Neal said.

The attorney acknowledged that earlier versions of the agreement included provisions to protect the county, removed from the latest proposal. Volunteers will seldom use the new living quarters, kitchen and bathroom, Neal said.

Supervisors Steve Baker, John R. “Dick” Neese, Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley and Ferguson voted against the motion to approve the proposed agreement between the county and the volunteers with a floor plan illustrating renovations to the station. Ferguson’s proposal did not include the plan. Instead, Ferguson said the county would look at what improvements should be made. Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz voted in favor of the agreement with the floor plan.

Shruntz, whose district covers Toms Brook, said she supported Ferguson’s proposal. Helsley questioned Shruntz for supporting previous versions of the agreement but also opposing language in those proposals.

“I was trying to vote for anything I thought possible to move this along,” Shruntz said.

The county has been working with the department for the past several years to reach a deal on housing paid emergency responders at the Toms Brook station. The county budgeted $95,000 in 2013 to cover the cost to renovate the sleeping area in the building that meets safety regulations. The board has supported the funding request in the past.

“I have problems with that [appropriation], looking at it from a business perspective,” Helsley said.

Shruntz interrupted Helsley and said “the funds were approved a long time ago.” Bailey pointed out that the previous board, with Supervisors Dennis Morris and Sharon Baroncelli, approved the funds two years ago. However, the proposal to encumber the department property remained a “sticking point,” Shruntz and Bailey noted. Helsley said he had problems early on with spending money to build an additional kitchen in the building. Bailey criticized Helsley for not bringing up that concern two years ago.

Ferguson recalled previous board discussions dealt with the need for security attached to the $95,000 allocation, then the idea of compensating the volunteers for higher utility costs.

“So I thought that was a fair compromise that we agree we’ll go in, make it code-compliant, make it a safe place to sleep and absorb all the costs, do all the work and we’ll go forward from that point,” Ferguson said. “If the future shows that other things are needed and the relationship between paid and volunteers is cohesive enough to continue to support those kinds of things, then I would be for it.”

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or