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Budget debate sparks threat from Carter County volunteer firefighters to quit fighting fires

JOHN THOMPSON • Apr 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Volunteer firefighters in Carter County are threatening to quit fighting fires as a result of a heated argument that broke out during Thursday’s meeting of the County Commission’s Budget Committee.

The dispute was between Carter County Volunteer Firemen’s Association President David Nichols and County Commissioner Tom “Yogi” Bowers.

Nichols has set a general membership meeting of the association for tonight at 7 at the Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department’s Station No. 2 to discuss the situation. “All 171 volunteer firefighters have been invited to attend,” Nichols said.

The flashpoint occurred Thursday night when Nichols was addressing the Budget Committee as part of his effort to obtain a commitment from the county government to back a $1.74 million bond so the volunteer fire departments can purchase nine new firetrucks. Nichols said it would not cost the taxpayers any more money because the funds to repay the loan would be taken out of money the county annually gives the departments.

During the discussion, Bowers suggested the seven departments ought to be combined into one countywide volunteer fire department. He said each department “wants its own little kingdom at the expense of the taxpayer.” Nichols began to answer Bowers and stepped away from the lectern. Bowers immediately told Nichols not to come toward the committee and get back to the speaker’s desk.

Nichols quickly returned to the lectern, but told Bowers “I can’t take any more of your innuendoes and accusations.”

Nichols said the County Commission could organize a fire department any way it wanted if the commissioners were dissatisfied with the way the fire departments were being run.

Several volunteer firefighters in the audience vocally supported Nichols. One asked Bowers if he lived in the city or the county. When Bowers answered he lived in the city, the argument quickly became a city vs. county debate.

“Every time there is a major structure fire in the county, a Stoney Creek firetruck comes to the city to stand by,” Nichols said. Central also stands by at Fire Station No. 3, Nichols said.

“How many volunteer firetrucks were at the North American Rayon fire?” another volunteer asked.

Nichols soon left the meeting and the other firefighters followed.

The morning following the meeting, Bowers said “I have nothing but respect for the volunteer firefighters, but when the county is funding them at almost $300,000 a year, there has to be a cutoff point. I hate tempers got to be what they were, but it wasn’t my doing. Nichols made the threat to park the firetrucks.”

Later in the day Bowers said, “Threatening to close the fire departments is irresponsible and it is hurting no one but the taxpaying citizens. It should also be remembered that the county is still paying the departments for the final two months of this year’s budget.”

Bowers said it was “no secret” that he and Nichols do not like each other. He said it would be better if someone else was in charge. He suggested retired Johnson City Fire Chief Doug Buckles or one of the seven current chiefs of the Carter County volunteer departments.

Nichols spoke with several members of the media on Friday at the Hampton Fire Department, where its members showed reporters the run-down condition of the fire equipment, which included firetrucks that were bought used and are now more than 20 years old.

Capt. David Jones of the Hampton Volunteer Fire Department showed the floor board of a 1981-model fire truck. He removed the rubber floor mats to show that the floor boards had nearly rusted out.

Raymond Dugger, treasurer and trustee of the Roan Mountain Volunteer Fire Department brought a 1972 firetruck that is used at the Burbank Substation. As the old firetruck pulled into the Hampton station the left front tire blew out.

Other Hampton firefighters displayed turnout gear that was badly worn and out of date. Fire boots had holes in them that would allow the intense heat from a burning building to penetrate to the firefighters’ feet. Coats that were supposed to be replaced after two years were still in service after 10 years. Nichols said the equipment is so worn out because the departments do not receive enough funding from the county and from the citizens they support.

The County Commission has been providing each department with $37,500, and an additional $15,000 as matching funds for any department that received a Homeland Security grant, for a total annual contribution of $277,500.

For the past 10 years, about $20,000 of each department’s $37,500 has gone to make payments on firetrucks each department bought in 1996. The remainder of the county money went to make insurance payments.

All of the fire department’s operational revenue to purchase fuel, repair the trucks, buy new turnout gear and communications equipment comes from contributions made by the citizens in the communities the fire departments serve.

The firefighters regularly hold roadblocks to collect contributions. The departments also hold fireworks sales during holidays, sponsor haunted houses at Halloween, sell candles, Christmas trees and apple butter.

Nichols said he has talked with the Budget Committee several times about his plan to use the $120,000 annual donation to repay the loan to purchase new firetrucks. He said each time he has met with them they turn the conversation away from the budget request, such as Thursday’s discussion about making one countywide department.

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