Berkeley volunteer firefighters upset about new county funding approval process

By Stacy

MONCKS CORNER, S.C. (WCIV) -- Volunteer firefighters in Berkeley County have been lacking funding for years, they said. The amount they get from resident taxes hasn't changed in almost a decade.

"Council wants to control us. They want to control us without having any of the things that come with it, like raising fire fees or taking responsibility for when someone's hurt, injured or is dead," Whitesville Rural Fire Department Chief Timothy Stephenson said.

Also about a decade ago, in 2005, the volunteer departments realized not all of them could stay afloat financially. So they started a pool fund; each department would donate $5 to help less-populous departments make a $50,000 budget. The leftover funds were designated for emergencies.

"The pool fund was designed to help bring the smaller fire departments up to operating condition. It was also designed to help these fire departments who do acquire federal funding to help pay these percentages," Lake Moultrie Deputy Chief Donald Martin said.

When departments get federal grants, they often have to match a portion of the money. The emergency money provided for that, as well as emergency maintenance fees, he said.

About five months ago, a newly-reformed "fire tax advisory board" created a formalized way to handle the pool funds. Councilman Ken Gunn oversaw the board.

"They have to write down the department, what they're asking for, and the amount and the reason they wanted it," he said, explaining the emergency fund application form.

Gunn said county officials couldn't find any records of how the fund was distributed prior to 2014.

ABC News 4 asked Martin about those records: "Have there been records kept of where that pool fund money went?"

"To my knowledge, no ma'am," he said.

Gunn said the board created the application, and council approved it, because taxpayers should know how their money was being spent.

Frustrations came to a head at county council Tuesday night.

"His meddling in turn created an unpleasant working relationship between the tax advisory board and the fire chiefs," Martin said of Gunn's work leading the advisory board.

Meddling and red tape have made the approval process a nightmare, Martin said. But Gunn said he was just doing what was right for Berkeley County.

Gunn scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue with the fire departments June 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Berkeley County council chambers.