Tensions flare over hiring paid SC fire chief

By John Marks
Lake Wylie Pilot

LAKE WYLIE, S.C. — The lingering issue of hiring a new paid fire chief in Lake Wylie grew heated at the firehouse Wednesday night with a makeshift public forum.

The five-member Bethel Rural Fire Tax Board set up to oversee spending in the special tax district went behind closed doors to meet with the York County attorney as about 40 people awaited word on whether a new chief would be hired during the board meeting at Station 1 on Oakridge Road. The board came back into the public meeting only to say it was returning to a closed session to discuss an agreement with the county, and no hiring would be made Wednesday.

“It’s not going to be tonight,” said Chairwoman Margaret Blackwell.

The move prompted an outburst of questions from the gathered group, mostly Bethel Volunteer Fire Department volunteer firefighters and their families opposed to hiring a new paid chief. Many argue continuing to allow firefighters to elect a volunteer chief is a savings to taxpayers and has a proven success record as the department has operated that way for 50 years.

Blackwell said the tax board would hold off on its executive session and take a half hour to hear from the residents. The crowd didn’t mince words.

“When I voted on that tax, I voted for you basically to oversee the money for the department,” said Joyce Jackson, who says the tax board overstepped its bounds by getting into department operations. “To be honest with you, I want you all gone. You are supposed to be working for us.”

Speakers said the tax board “shunned” volunteer firefighters who haven’t been able to focus for the past year on improving their service because of the paid chief issue. They say volunteer and paid firefighters — the small paid staff answers to the tax board funding the positions — aren’t cooperating they way they should.

“This entire year has been lost and irreparable damage has been done, because this is the only thing we’ve been fighting,” said firefighter Shawn Donahue.

Volunteers asked York County Council to stop the tax board from making the hire, but Council backed the board saying it has authority to make that decision. Blackwell said the hiring process is working well.

“We have interviewed four candidates, and they have all been excellent,” she said.

Paid vs. volunteer
Board member Tea Hoffmann said volunteers and paid staff “are not getting along well,” which is part of the reason a paid chief is needed.

Resident John Howard said the paid chief issue is why volunteers and paid staff are having problems.

“We feel like it’s a solution to a problem that does not exist,” he said. “It’s not needed at this time. You mention a riff. It’s going to be even worse. People are going to leave.”

Hoffmann said a growing community is a concern, saying a new chief is a way to get ahead of an increased call for fire service.

“The calls have gone up every month, every single month,” he said. “Lake Wylie is growing and growing and growing.”

Firefighter Joe Costello said if a growing number of people and structures within the department is the issue, “it seems like it would be better spent money to hire more paid staff” when a volunteer chief is free.

Tax board member Ed Lindsey said who better than a paid chief to make decisions on how many paid staff members are needed, especially when volunteers and the tax board agree a paid chief will be needed at some point.

“This is a discussion of when we hire a chief,” Lindsey said.

By ordinance, all tax board members must be residents within the tax district covering Lake Wylie.

“I live in this district, too,” Hoffmann said. “It’s my tax money, too.”

Blackwell said a paid chief could improve service for everyone compared to how paid staff and volunteers operate now.

“We want a paid chief, because we want this to be more like a business,” she said.

Manpower card
While volunteers don’t have the legal support from county leaders to stop the hiring, their biggest chip to play is manpower. There are many more volunteer firefighters than paid staff.

“All the men in this room feel like they have their chief, and he’s sitting right there,” said resident Alex Covington, pointing to volunteer Chief Don Love. “A lot of these volunteers in here are going to walk off the job.”

Paid firefighter Jason Dillon said he began as a volunteer elsewhere and understands why firefighters serve their community. He can’t understand why a paid chief would change that approach.

“Why would you walk out on your community?” he said.

Volunteers say in the dangerous work they do, trust is critical. It takes nine months with the group before a would-be volunteer becomes an official member. Bringing in someone new to run the department concerns them.

“I’m going to risk my life for an unknown?” Costello said.

Resident Allison Love, who will begin representing the area in January on York County Council, said she understands why volunteers bristle at the idea. She blames the tax board for creating unnecessary problems and said she will do whatever possible starting next year to undo the current tax board.

“Why would they want to work for these people?” she said. “If I had to work for these people for one day, I’d walk out at lunch time.”

Blackwell insists the board isn’t “trying to ruin anybody’s lives.” She also said it would take a full Council decision to overturn tax board decisions, and so far Council is siding with the board.

“I also know that it takes a full County Council to do it, and that takes four votes,” Blackwell said.

Jeff Turner, a volunteer firefighter elsewhere, came out Wednesday to support Bethel volunteers.

“I have never seen internal fighting like I’m seeing here,” Turner said. “This is ridiculous. They’re risking their lives.”

Copyright 2016 the Lake Wylie Pilot

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