ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County Emergency Response Team (Hazmat) Chief Tony Robinson issued a letter to Hawkins County commissioners on Saturday stating that the agency will likely be shutting down in February if funding approved by the County Commission in August isn’t paid by January.
The funds are being withheld because the HCERT is one of only a few agencies that haven’t met County Mayor Jim Lee’s demand for financial records from all nonprofit organizations that receive contributions from the county.
The 2020-21 budget approved by the County Commission in August allocates a $19,600 contribution to HCERT, as well as a one-time-only $1,500 bonus. All county fire departments were awarded that same $19,600 plus a one-time $6,500 bonus.
“We will be forced to shut down completely”
In his letter to commissioners, Robinson states that the HCERT has been denied the approved funding by Lee, and as of Saturday the agency only had $500 in the bank to operate on.
“That being the case, we will have no choice but to (cease) operations,” Robinson said in his letter to commissioners. “We do not want to do this. But when we are not getting the funding that you have approved and provided for us, we just can’t assume the liability entailed with it.”
Robinson stated in his letter the HCERT will respond if dispatched to a “true emergency” — and only until the next $6,500 insurance payment is due in February.
“We will keep the doors open and trucks rolling as long as we can,” Robinson said. “But be assured that if we don’t receive our funding by January, then sometime in February we will be forced to shut down completely. I urge you all to please do what you can to ensure we get the funding we all desperately need. Not just for us. But for the citizens and the first responders of Hawkins County.”
Four agencies under comptroller scrutiny
In September, Lee sent registered letters to all nonprofit organizations on the County Commission’s contribution list stating that they would be required to turn over financial records, including bank statements dating back three years, before they receive their funding.
That decision came after four nonprofit organizations came under the scrutiny of the State Comptroller’s office this year for alleged financial irregularities.
In one case, a woman who was the treasurer of both the Hawkins County Fireman’s Association and Church Hill Rescue Squad admitted to the Times News in August that she had misappropriated agency funds to make personal expenditures including car and house payments.
An unrelated comptroller investigation into Hawkins County Central Dispatch hasn’t been completed.
A comptroller report issued in September on the Clinch Valley Volunteer Fire Department said the agency made $2,500 in unauthorized gasoline purchases.
Not comfortable handing over banking information
Lee told the Times News on Monday HCERT had refused to submit bank records going back three years. Attempts by the Times News to contact Robinson on Monday to ask why those records hadn’t been turned over were unsuccessful.
Lee said that as of Monday only a few agencies hadn’t complied. The Carters Valley Volunteer Fire Department was on that list until Monday, when its funding was awarded after bank records were turned over.
Also currently on that list is the Stanley Valley Volunteer Fire Department.
“We do not feel comfortable with handing over our banking information, which includes the department’s secure information such as account numbers,” SVVFD Chief Stacy Vaughan told the Times News on Monday. “We are, however, 100 percent in agreement with the mayor scheduling a date and time to meet with our membership to review our budget, purchase orders and bank statements.”
Vaughan noted that if Lee refuses to release SVVFD’s contribution, the department has enough funds to operate until about December 2021.
Safety Committee meeting to resolve this issue
Lee told the Times News on Monday that if HCERT shuts down, “Kingsport Hazmat responds to all serious calls”.
Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency director Jamie Miller further explained, “Typically, calls for the Hawkins County Emergency Response Team are fluid containment or decontamination callouts. The Hazmat team is requested by the on-scene incident commander when needed. For large incidents such as the chlorine leak approximately 10 years ago or the chemical fire last year Hawkins County requests the regional hazmat team (Kingsport Fire Department).”
Hawkins County Commissioner Dawson Fields, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, told the Times News on Monday he will schedule a special called committee meeting and ask that Lee and Robinson are both in attendance so that they can resolve this issue and keep the HCERT open.
During the 2019 calendar year, HCERT was dispatched to six incidents, including two leaks, one fire and three vehicular accidents.
As of Monday, HCERT had responded to 10 incidents during the 2020 calendar year, including three vehicle accidents, one vehicle fire, two structure fires, a gas leak, an environmental emergency, an officer request and a narcotics incident.
“Hazmat handles the type of emergencies that the fire departments are normally not equipped or have the specialized training to deal with,” Vaughan said. “They are the professionals we use in those situations. So not only could (the shutdown) put the citizens at risk , it could also put the firemen in an unnecessary dangerous situation.”