WHITE SPRINGS — Concerns with the status and ability of the White Springs Volunteer Fire Department combined with a new fire protection agreement with Hamilton County led to a drastic move by the White Springs Town Council last week.
At the council’s May 14 meeting, the council voted to have Fire Chief Steve Stith report directly to the council instead of to Town Manager Stacy Tebo. Following a lengthy discussion on the topic, the council approved the move by a 3-2 vote with Tonja Brown and Spencer Lofton dissenting.
“The buck stops here with the town council,” Mayor Helen Miller said, adding the town’s charter gives the council the “sole discretion” in determining the manner of fire services provided to the town.
“I think we need to move forward with that. Otherwise we continue and continue and continue with not being credible.”
Kevin Pittman, then the town’s fire chief, resigned in January 2018 after a dispute with Tebo. At that same meeting, six of the town’s volunteer firefighters offered their resignations as well. Those resignations came after they approached Tebo with a vote of no confidence in assistant chief Andrew Greene.
“What did they get?” Miller asked about the courage shown to provide examples of what they perceived to be a failure of leadership. “Absolutely nothing. No respect and no consideration.”
Following the mass exodus, Stith was named the town’s fire chief. At last week’s meeting, Stith told the council he had a roster of 12 volunteers and had been utilizing stipends — budgeted from the proceeds of the town’s contract with the county for fire protection — for those volunteers in order to have the fire station manned over the weekends.
However, Miller and Vice Mayor Walter McKenzie said there had been concerns among the town’s residents with the availability of some of those volunteers, both in where they reside and how long it would take them to respond to a call and in their willingness to respond to a call. Councilman Tom Moore said if a list of volunteers and their addresses would be provided, the council could then analyze their ability to provide protection for the town.
“We need to find a solution,” Miller said. “We’ve been spinning our wheels for over a year on this.
“This isn’t about names on a roster but about the capabilities of people that will show up for a fire.”
Stith agreed that the fire department had struggled to add more volunteers. But he also stressed he would gladly welcome any of the former members back. Rather, they have made their feelings well known.
“They made it crystal clear, they don’t want nothing to do with the ones at the fire department — crystal clear,” he said. “It’s not the fire department that has to change, it’s their attitudes or their thought process that needs to change.”
Miller said the town’s problem is it has an agreement with Hamilton County to provide services. That agreement provides funding to the town based on the number of calls it responds to, not only in town but also on the south end of the county.
The agreement guarantees the town a quarterly base amount of $2,500 with the potential to earn an additional $5,000 that is prorated based on the total amount of calls the town answers compared to the total calls for service.
Stith said the agreement requires the town’s department respond within 25 minutes of the call, which again led to questions about where the current volunteers live and their ability to respond in that time span.
Resident Tom Brazil, whose son was one of the firefighters that resigned in 2018, said the town is failing in its most basic duty.
“The first job of government is public safety,” Brazil said. “If you don’t have police and fire protection, if you don’t have public safety, you don’t have a government.”
Lofton said the complaints with Stith weren’t fair, noting the town’s ISO rating had improved under his watch.
“This man has personally revamped our fire department,” Lofton said.
“My understanding is that you’re trying to circumvent her control over the fire department … and to go ahead and take control of that by the council.”
Tebo disagreed with the belief that the charter allowed for the council to directly oversee the fire chief, stating the town manager’s duties are to oversee all the departments specifically mentioned in the charter, such as the police department and police chief.
“I would say that it would violate the town charter,” Tebo said.
The council, though, disagreed.
“We need to make a change and we have the responsibility to do that,” Miller said.