County votes to freeze Lanark fire department funding

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Following a contentious opening to Tuesday morning’s county commission meeting, in which the conflicts plaguing the St. James Lanark Village Volunteer Fire Department surfaced in what one county commissioner called a “Hatfield and the McCoys” situation, commissioners voted to freeze the county-controlled funding that makes up most of the department’s assets.

By a unanimous vote, commissioners approved a motion by Bert Boldt, and seconded by Jessica Ward, to pause the Municipal Service Benefits Funds (MSBU) that flow into the district out of assessments on properties within that fire district, one of seven in the county.

County Attorney Michael Shuler had advised commissioners that they were entitled to act based on a simple motion, rather than drafting an ordinance that could take a few readings.

“You can’t cross pollinate the funding, it must be spent in Lanark,” he said. “I don't find (in the existing ordinance) that there's any obligation to provide quarterly funding.”

To address any upcoming costs that the fire district could incur, the board also unanimously approved a second motion that would empower County Coordinator Michael Morón and Director of Finance Erin Griffith to process check requests of no more than $1,500.

A third motion, made by Boldt, would have asked the existing board governing the fire department to return by May 19 all MSBU monies in its bank account. The motion also specified that if the fire department refused in a timely manner to return the monies, then the county’s auditing firm would determine the specific amount of MSBU funds to be returned, and the amount of charitable donations that would remain in the department’s coffers.

Boldt estimated that as of records he had seen in January, the department had about $100,000 in its account.

The motion died for lack of a second. “We'd be putting ourselves in a bad situation and making it worse,” said Jones.

Discussion gets heated in public comments

The contentious public discussion first emerged with an appearance in the public comment portion by Forest Presnell Jr., a member of the board of a concerned citizens group that has been vocal in seeking removal of the current board of the non-profit entity that manages the department.

Presnell said his group has lined up volunteer firefighters willing to step in, and asked that as the county pursues a mutual aid agreement with the Carrabelle Fire Department to step in, that the MSBU monies that fund the Lanark department be kept in reserve, and disbursed only as necessary.

Also speaking was Chris Crosby, who said he was a certified wildlands firefighter for the state, and a certified Firefighter 1. Crosby said he has tried to reach out to Chief David Curry on two occasions and heard nothing. 

“I’ll do whatever I can to resolve this matter,” he said. 

Crosby is a declared candidate for county commissioner for District 2.

James B. Putnal, a member of the fire department, said Curry has been sidelined by a medical emergency, and provided commissioners with passages of the Florida statutes regarding bylaws that govern the succession. He stressed he was speaking neither for the department nor the chief.

“Before you jump to conclusions and make any rash decisions, I would ask that you take time to read them,” he said. “What you got is a group of people who have involved themselves in something they didn't need to, and they pushed and pushed and have pushed the current board to the point where it has caused the issues going on now.”

Ward noted quickly that “it should not have got to this point.”

Boldt, who represents District 2, said “this didn’t happen overnight. It has been escalating for quite some time.”

Lockley offered to assist with the discussions. “My main issue is for the safety of the people,” he said. “If something happens, and I hope it don’t, we need somebody to answer them fire calls.

“I’m not getting in the middle of the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Lockley said. “I want somebody to answer calls so the public can be safe.”

The meeting then grew heated, as Putnal reiterated his criticism of the concerned citizens activist group, prompting Jones to advise him “to please stay on task.”

After Putnal said existing firefighters “have stepped down and walked away,” Shuler questioned him as to whether there were firefighters “ready, willing and able” to respond to calls.

“We do have certified people ready and able but the willing part, at this point, it's kind of up in the air,” Putnal said. “The willingness is the issue here.”

Responding to Putnal’s suggestion that he was contributing to these conflicts, Boldt responded firmly.

“In District 2, you have my 100 percent support, but there is a process,” he told Putnal. “I know fires don't just go through processes, they just happen.

“We are in control of looking at the money in regards to Carrabelle coming in to help us,” Boldt said. “We are not authorized to get in there to micromanage and police a volunteer organization.

“What we have seen is this disobedience and dysfunction,” he said. “It’s a big cancer there and we’re going to use all the resources we can to make sure that the department is up and functioning.”

Boldt then moved, and Lockley seconded, a motion to hold a public hearing on Friday, April 22 at 1:30 p.m. where the public could express their concerns regarding the department.

The two commissioners were the only ones to vote yea; the other three all voted no.

“I want the public to know we really really tried on this,” Boldt said.

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