Recently elected South Hill Volunteer Fire Department Chief, Michael Vaughn, was invited to speak to the South Hill Town Council at the Tuesday night meeting.
Chief Vaughn has been with the SHVFD for 20 years and has been serving as the department Administrator since 2012, a full time position with the town of South Hill. “I’ve had some great mentors along the way to help prepare me for this job and although I still have a lot more to learn, I have good people who will teach me those things and help with the process,” said Vaughn.
“My goal as Chief is to put time and effort into the member’s training, their families, and the fire department as a whole and to provide service to a community that is outstanding. It would not be fair if I did not recognize the ones that laid down the groundwork before me and that put us in the position that we’re today and set that fire department up to succeed. This is an ever-changing world and if it had not been for their hard work and dedication, we would not be where we are today.”
Councilman Gavin Honeycutt asked several questions regarding Mr. Vaughn’s responsibilities as the fire administrator and his goals for the department, including the creation of a new Junior Fire Department to attract volunteers at an early age. “My day to day operations are pretty simple. I’m the point of contact between the Town and the Fire Department. We’re constantly looking at maintenance, upkeep, cost, budgeting, and replacing equipment so that we can do the best that we can to save the tax payers money.”
Honeycutt asked about a “strategic plan” for requesting new equipment and upgrades to the department from the town. “The Fire Chief and the Admin have always worked together. We’re always looking at the equipment, looking at the standards and changes that we can expect in the future and we bring it to the town.” He continued, “I have submitted a three and five year plan to the Town and I did that on September 18.”
Honeycutt asked whom he had presented with that information to which Vaughn answered that the plan had been submitted to Town Manager, Kim Callis. Councilman Honeycutt then asked Mr. Callis if he had any plans to share that information with the Town Council. “What he sent me was an email of things that he saw coming over the next three years and when we start budget planning that would be the appropriate time to discuss some of these things,” answered Callis.
Councilman Honeycutt mentioned being approached by some of the fire volunteers about a request for department furniture and asked Vaughn to shed a little light on that situation. The Fire Chief explained that the department lacked a place for officers to meet and operate professionally.
The department recently submitted a funding request for a conference room table and chairs costing about $5400 that was denied by the Town.
Councilman Shep Moss asked if there was ever a budget issue in the past with requests from the department, to which Vaughn responded there had not been during his time with the department.
Kim Callis explained that the request was “audited” when it came through the finance department, who then brought the information to him with questions. “It wasn’t something that was ever discussed with the Budget and Finance Committee or approved as a building repair and expenditure.” He continued, “So I had a conversation with Chief Vaughn and he said that this type of thing had run through that account before but we have new staff, people that filter things a little more closely. It was reviewed and audited and it was not something that is typically in a building repair [category].”
Vaughn added, “So I went back to the volunteers and let them know that they had to pay for it and they are working on it and that was it.”
Councilman Honeycutt asked “why now” and explained that in his many years living in this community, to his knowledge, there had never been an issue with fire department requests.
Councilman Joseph Taylor added, “While I understand Mr. Honeycutt your position that the town has always taken a very generous approach, I’m not in favor of approving every request.” After Mr. Honeycutt disagreed with Mr. Taylor’s remarks regarding his position, Mr. Taylor asked him to further explain his position.
Councilman Moss said that in his opinion this would be a request that needed to be submitted to the Fire Committee as well as the Budget and Finance Committee and be approved or denied by the Council.
Councilwoman Luster added, “But at the same time we had a budget for the office equipment and right now we only have a balance of $2900 left in that budget.” She also stated that she would be in favor of the volunteers raising the funds themselves.
According to Vaughn, the concern from the volunteers is that the request is nothing unusual for the department. “Chief Wells wanted a new desk and chairs, it was purchased, monitors were purchased, when we needed repairs to the control room, that was done, so if the volunteers came to you, I believe that was their concern.”
Later in the meeting Councilman Moss raised the issue again saying, “We have an organization that serves this community and they need $5400. There’s already $2900 in their budget. We’re basically looking at a $2100 short fall not a full funding of $5400. How hard would it be to reallocate money from another line item that’s already in the fire department’s budget? If they’ve got $21,000 in repairs and maintenance, how hard would it be to reallocate money from that to the budget with the $2900 balance so they are able to purchase what they need?”
Mr. Moss added that he had voted no to a request earlier in the meeting from the Chamber of Commerce for “Snowflake” sponsorship from the Town Council during Hometown Christmas weekend. “The Chamber knows where I stand and that I wholeheartedly support them but here is a department that serves this community and using this account has never been an issue until the officers just changed this year. I think it’s an absolute disgrace that we are not supporting this department 100% but we’re passing and giving out money like it’s candy. I know of other budget items that have been moved around from department to department and purchases have been made outside of the budget. I don’t understand how we cannot support this budget request, nor do I understand why this request was not presented to our Fire Committee, which I happen to be on and knew nothing of the request. It was not presented to Budget and Finance, that’s what we’re here to do. We are elected to do these things, not for one person to be the judge, jury, and executioner on every issue that comes up. This is our job to do this and I ask the Council to reconsider reallocating the budget and support this organization that supports our community.”
Mr. Honeycutt agreed with Mr. Moss and added that the volunteers are currently sitting on five gallon buckets in the conference room, which he called “a disgrace”.
Mr. Callis answered, “Whenever there has been a significant expense in the fire department, the Chief has always brought it to the Town Manager’s attention and then it has been brought to the attention of the Budget and Finance Committee to ask for additional funds to do that. This was over $5000, I think it was $5400 not discussed during budget preparation and is a pretty significant expense.”
Mr. Callis stated that his recommendation would be to appropriate the $5,000 before Mr. Moss interjected by saying, “Mr. Callis that is not your recommendation because if it was you would have done this when this request was made. You could have forwarded this request to Budget and Finance and we could have handled this without handling it like this. God forbid it’s your home that they have to respond to. This is crazy that we’re doing this and do not expect me to vote to spend $100,000 for the amphitheater wall, that is not in the budget either. This should have never happened. This is not your recommendation because you could have recommended this when it came to your desk.”
Callis then explained that he had the conversation with Chief Vaughn and was told that he (Chief) would take it back to the volunteers to take care of it and that is “where the conversation stopped”.
Joseph Taylor said that he could understand both sides of the issue but would be against taking a vote on the matter during the meeting having “just learned of it”. He requested more information on the purchase before he would cast a vote in favor or against the reallocation. Councilmen Moss and Honeycutt believed that the department had waited long enough and asked Mr. Vaughn to give them the date that the request was made.
“I think it was September 24. So for me the way this went down was I supposed to go back to the volunteers and I did my job as the volunteer Fire Chief and explained what was going to happen. Their concern at this point was that we asked for $85,000 to cover the cost of our air packs. Me as the Chief and Administrator, I went to the county and worked hand in hand with our Emergency Services Coordinator so that the Town of South Hill would not be responsible for that $85,000. The county purchased the first round of air packs for all of the fire departments so therefore that $85,000 will be returned to you all. So all [the volunteers] asked for was to finish this project and one of the questions that was brought to me was ‘can we use part of that $85,000 to complete this project?’”
The vendors that the department has dealt with to procure the conference table and chairs do not “just build normal furniture” according to Vaughn. These tables are built for fire departments, rescue buildings, and law enforcement agencies specifically for long lasting durability and heavy sanitation. “It’s something we won’t have to replace year after year,” added Vaughn.
Joseph Taylor again pointed out that he believes that the matter should be put on hold until the next budget planning session. Mr. Moss referred back to the five gallon buckets that, according to Moss, Mrs. Feggins-Boone witnessed fire fighters sitting on. “They’ve got to sit on buckets until July?” Moss asked.
Moss then asked Vaughn if he would be satisfied with reallocating, which would mean moving money from the Repairs and Maintenance budget line to the Office Equipment budget line.
“I’ll leave that up to your judgment but I’m going to be honest with you, we just had to buy a new truck because we had safety concerns. So the volunteers had to take rainy day funds and purchase a truck. So we don’t have a lot of money sitting around like that.”
Councilman Ben Taylor asked if using rainy day funds for this purpose was a usual practice in the past. Chief Vaughn stated that the funds have been used in the past to purchase necessities but never for a vehicle.
Mr. Ben Taylor also asked why the firefighters and officers were sitting on buckets when he recalled seeing plenty of chairs at the annual Christmas dinner.
Chief Vaughn pointed out that Mr. Taylor had recently been by the fire station and had seen the office. The Councilman quickly responded, “Wait a minute. That was not my question. My question is why are people sitting on buckets?”
Vaughn stated that some of the chairs and tables were in bad condition and were moved to the dining area, however, the conference room is where meetings and training take place and the department would like to have something more durable and professional in that area.
Mr. Ben Taylor asked again where the chairs were that are used for the Christmas dinner. Vaughn said that those chairs were in storage. The exchange came to an end with Mr. Taylor saying, “So you have chairs. People don’t have to sit on buckets because they don’t have chairs?”
Councilman Moss made the motion to appropriate $5400 to the fire department for the completion of the project.
Joseph Taylor again requested a month to consider what is being requested having not seen a list of purchase items and exact costs. Councilwoman and Fire Committee Chairman, Lillie Feggins-Boone, then provided a detailed list of items for the Council to review.
“We need to remember that whether we like it or not there is a procedure that needs to be followed when requesting funds. Some get approved and some don’t,” added Councilman Mike Moody. “We have to be very mindful of how we handle this but we are always supportive.”
Ben Taylor and Mike Moody both pointed out that the request had blindsided them and that no one on the Council, except for Mrs. Feggins-Boone, had seen the request.
Chief Vaughn answered, “I didn’t blindside you. I didn’t bring this to the Council members, the volunteers did. I’m going to be perfectly honest, they are very upset. The reason is that it’s never been a problem before. I submitted to the finance department as the Administrator for a purchase order, the way that we are trained and taught to do. There is no manual we go by. There are no dos and don’ts. Furniture has never been an issue.” He continued, “I didn’t do anything that we haven’t done before. I submitted a purchase order and I was denied. I was told the volunteers would have to pay for it and I took that back to the volunteers. I submitted this to the volunteers in a closed doors officers meeting and we had to inform them that the project was on hold. So when I told them this, they were not very happy.”
Vaughn said that taking it to the volunteers was as far as he was allowed to go and as an employee of the Town is in fear of losing his job and wants to be very careful with “this stuff”.
The Board acted in favor of the motion to appropriate $5412.56 in a 7 to 1 majority vote. Joseph Taylor was the only Council member to vote against the motion.