Debate rages over Berkeley's volunteer fire department funds

BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCIV) - Berkeley County volunteer firefighters said on Wednesday they are concerned about the way a Berkeley County Fire Tax Advisory Board is being controlled.

"Our issue isn't with accountability of the funds," said Tim Stephenson, fire chief for Whitesville Fire Department. "Our issue is with the changes that have been made without anybody's approval, just one guy making suggestions to a board that he controls."

On Tuesday, dozens of volunteer firefighters showed up to the Berkeley County Council meeting. The group presented a two-page letter which addressed changes to funding requests through pool fund.

Stephenson says until about six months ago, fire chiefs were able to use money from the Pooled Fire Fees Reserve Fund for federal grant matching fees.

He says they were recently told they could no longer do that.

"They recently approved one individuals' department for a matching grant which was Jamestown," said Stephenson. "After they approved that, the man was very specific in saying, 'Don't ever request pool fund money again for a matching grant.'"

The man Stephenson was referring to was Ken Gunn, councilman for Berkeley County and chairman of the Public Safety committee.

Gunn was not available for an on-camera interview but spoke to ABC News 4 over the phone after County Supervisor Dan Davis responded publicly to Gunn's comments from the previous night.

Davis said in an email that he was troubled by what Gunn had said after Tuesday night's meeting. He said the information Gunn provided was "categorically untrue."

Davis also included a PDF detailing each year's fire department fund spending records.

"Copies of the minutes can be requested from the clerk to council. Payments were made by the Finance Department, and copies of checks can be provided, unless they have been already destroyed in accordance with the county's retention schedule policy," Davis said in the email.

He also called on Gunn to contact ABC News 4 and clarify his statements.

"Council has no restrictions on what you can apply for in the pool fund money," Gunn said. "None whatsoever."

When asked if there were restrictions on what departments would be approved for, Gunn said: "Not that I'm aware of."

In an interview following Tuesday's county council meeting, Gunn said the county "couldn't find any record of how the fund was distributed prior to 2014."

On Wednesday, Gunn retracted his statement saying he meant the county didn't have the original application requests nor meeting minutes documenting when each distribution was approved.

Gunn says a meeting will be held between Berkeley County council and the Fire Chief's Association sometime within the next two weeks.