‘There’s going to be a more intense level of scrutiny’
The Rappahannock County government will closely examine its working relationship with the county’s fire levy board and seven volunteer fire and rescue companies, according to county officials.
County Administrator Garrey W. Curry was barely one month into his new job last February when he raised questions to the county’s board of supervisors about the makeup of the fire levy board. The first county record he could find listed only two fire levy positions.
Subsequently the administrator discovered an original signed document, dated February 2016, when the BOS adopted the current Fire Levy Board Charter. It stated that the board’s membership would consist of eight members, to include: a BOS member, a member chosen by the Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association, a member chosen by the chiefs of the companies, and one private citizen from each of the county’s five voting districts to be appointed by the BOS.
Jackson district Supervisor Ron Frazier, the BOS representative on the fire levy board, immediately applauded Curry for “diving into this.”
“To me, it highlights a problem,” Frazier stated. “Somehow, perhaps through simple inattention, the board set into place a situation where the [fire levy] board they created is 50 percent controlled by the appointees that are [members of] the same entities the board is supposed to oversee.”
In other words, the supervisor pointed out, fire levy member Paul Komar is in charge of the Castleton Community Volunteer Fire, another member Frank Huff oversees the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire Company, and members Richie Burke and Freddie Thompson hold positions with the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department.
“The only ‘citizen’ members not affiliated in the management roles in the volunteer fire companies are Ms. [Kim Baader] Kilby, Mr. [Joe] Hall and Mr. [Page] Glennie,” noted Frazier, who learned at this month’s BOS meeting that Hall hasn’t attended a fire levy meeting since 2015.
“We should consider a restructure of the membership,” Frazier told Curry in February.
Three weeks ago, Curry wrote to Stewart Petoe, executive director of Virginia’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council in Richmond, inquiring in part: “May representatives appointed to the fire levy board by the BOS vote to recommend that the BOS pay county [taxpayer] funds to the volunteer fire company of which they are a member?”
Petoe responded that provided fire levy board members from the volunteer fire and rescue companies “do not receive salary, compensation, or other benefits, or . . . they do not have a ‘personal interest’ in the fire companies,” then they are “not prohibited under the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act (COIA) from participating in a transaction that involves the recommendation of [taxpayer] funding being given to their volunteer fire and rescue companies.”
According to the 2016 Fire Levy Board Charter, the board “is charged with the responsibility of reviewing all requests for reimbursement submitted by the various volunteer fire & rescue companies.” It further states that the board shall meet not less than twice annually, and may adopt its own rules for conducting business, including the election of a chairman and other officers as deemed necessary.
“We will start to look at these things a lot closer,” Supervisor John Lesinski said in a separate interview this week. “There’s going to be a more intense level of scrutiny on the company budgets.”
Lesinski added that the fire companies have gotten better at submitting their financials earlier rather than later in the budget process, which helps the BOS in determining operational funding and other needs.
Lesinski, at the same time, said he would be open to fewer fire and rescue members appointed to the fire levy board, but it would be something the BOS would have to look at as a group.
“It’s important for the [BOS] to consider those [questions],” agreed Curry. “Whether they’re a representative of the chiefs, or the association, or they’re citizens from the various districts, the board should reflect on are they the most appropriate people to perform the job that needs to be done?
“And what is that job?” he added. “And what is the role of the fire levy board? You have one paragraph there [in the charter] that says what the role is. It’s appropriate for the board of supervisors to be considering whether something different needs to be written into the charter, to give more direction to the fire levy board. It’s always an appropriate time to do that [and] it is a particularly appropriate time when things are changing due to the fire and rescue-EMS services agreement, which is changing how the companies are going to be funded by the county.”
The county is moving to quarterly funding, based on annual budgets derived from past years’ reviewed expenses.
“These [fire companies] are independent corporations, with independent books, and the county is one resource for them to obtain funding — and it’s a big one, a huge one,” Curry observed. “So what role should the county play in that? How much autonomy should each of the companies have?
“And how much do we really want to be as a county government reaching in and trying to make decisions? Or are those best made closest to the situation by the companies themselves? Communities struggle with that because there’s so much community dollar involved.”