Finance committee lends hand to volunteer firemen

Local officials will lend a hand to the county’s volunteer firefighting agencies.

In the Oct. 21 Coffee County Budget and Finance Committee meeting, members approved to appropriate $135,000 to help the struggling volunteer fire departments and rescue squad.


How it started

At the Sept. 8 county commission meeting, Summitville Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Michael Hopkins spoke to the county commission about the department’s struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We came tonight because the volunteers are in need,” Hopkins said. “We are not able to fundraise like we normally do, so our funding is getting short and is causing the risk of having to shut our doors.”

The county provides money for the volunteer departments every year. This year, Hickerson Station Volunteer Fire Department received $66,330; Hillsboro Volunteer Fire Department received $66,330; New Union Volunteer Fire Department received $66,330; North Coffee Volunteer Fire Department received $42,000; and Summitville Volunteer Fire Department received $76,230.

Hopkins said he previously requested additional funds, but the request was denied.

“We asked for COVID money and we were passed over,” Hopkins said. “We have not asked this committee or this county for much. Our fire chief has to sign their personal name for every truck that is bought for us. We have to put ourselves on the line for these trucks. It costs us $8,000 to equip one firefighter. The money we receive, we make it stretch, but we can use some more help.”

Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell told him they would put him on the agenda for the Budget and Finance Committee.


September meeting

During the Sept. 29 Budget and Finance meeting, representatives from several of the volunteer fire departments came to present their expenditures for the year and to answer any questions committee members may have.

Hopkins was first to speak and told the committee his department just bought two used trucks that are 30 years old. According to Hopkins, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) wants fire trucks to last 20 years, but the stations have to extend them due to not being able to purchase a new truck.

He stated all he was asking for was an increase in his budget so he could have more room to maintain NFPA compliance and insurance.

“If something happens to us, the chiefs and assistant chiefs are personally held responsible,” Hopkins said. “We can be sued.”

Hopkins said the main fundraiser for his department typically brings in $6,000 to $8,000. There are no other fundraisers for the department, either. Hopkins said they do not have any other fundraisers because they do not have the community support to do more.

Committee members asked how much they usually had at the end of the year; Hopkins said they usually have $3,000 to $5,000 left but it has been shrinking each year.


Bonnaroo impact

Hillsboro Volunteer Fire Chief William Gunn spoke next and stated he has to take out $23,000 for insurance each year because of Bonnaroo alone. Afterwards, when he budgets in maintenance, utilities, testing and making purchases like buying used trucks, he is left with $6,500 in the department coffers.

Gunn said his department usually receives $12,000 in donations from Bonnaroo each year. With the festival’s cancellation this year due to the pandemic, there was no donation.

“I think we all got used to having Bonnaroo, and it’s not here,” Gunn said.

The Hillsboro VFD is the only department that receives funding from Bonnaroo, as the Bonnaroo grounds are located in the Hillsboro area, according to Gunn.

Hillsboro VFD has a barbecue dinner each year for its main fundraiser, he said, but with people not working due to the pandemic, they are also not donating.

“It’s hit everybody hard,” Gunn said.

Like Hopkins, Gunn said he also must buy used trucks in his name. The last time Hillsboro bought a new truck was in 1978, as new trucks cost on average $150,000.

“I’m sitting here with a 1987 oil tanker that was a box truck they put a fire gun on that we got on a community grant from the state in the 1991 timeframe,” Gunn said.

Gunn said they are thankful for what they have been given and they haven’t had to ask for money increases.

“We are already asking so much from these men and women to get up in the middle of the night in 20 degree weather to go fight fires; go to work without having slept; or having to meet state requirements – they have to take off work to go to fire school for free,” Gunn said. “There’s so much time in a day, and we still have families too.”


New chief, old problems

North Coffee Volunteer Fire Department Chief Greg Wright is the newest of the volunteer fire department chiefs. He took the position in January and was made aware that the allocation he would receive from the county was cut a few years back to ISO concerns.

Like the other departments, Wright bought a used 1995 pumper truck last month. It is the newest in the North Coffee fleet. He said he also needs a firefighting apparatus for one his trucks, because if he needs a truck with a ladder, he has to call the Manchester Fire Department.

He added he is trying to secure land in the Beechgrove area to build a sub-station as the area is growing.

As for the department’s fundraiser, a picture drive, it still has not yet started due to COVID-19, which has hurt.

“If we were allowed to have it, I think people probably wouldn’t show up to avoid catching the virus,” Wright said. “It’s been a struggle.”

When asked if they are making it currently, Wright said they are doing alright with making the standards and qualifications.

“We’re making it little by little; it just takes time and money,” Wright said.

After Wright spoke, county commissioner and retired Tullahoma Deputy Fire Chief Tim Stubblefield addressed the committee about the question of if the departments were “making it.”

“I’m sure every one of these guys is making it, but they are making it on vehicles that we discarded 15 or 20 years ago,” Stubblefield said. “I dare say if they wanted buy or double check their firefighting equipment, most of their equipment would be out of date.”

He added that Tullahoma Fire Department has a $2 million budget to help keep its equipment up-to-date while the volunteer departments have to get creative to do the job he did for 30 years. He praised the volunteers for their work, calling them heroes.

“They’re doing the best they can do with what they’ve got,” Stubblefield said.

Coffee County Emergency Medical Services Chief Michael Bonner also spoke during the meeting. He said he was not asking for money but wanted to be on record asking the committee to consider CCEMS in the reevaluated budget discussions in January, as his department has faced pandemic-related financial uncertainty as well.

The committee decided it to look over everything before making a decision.


A decision is made

In the Oct. 21 meeting, committee member Bobby Bryan asked Cordell for his recommendation.

Cordell gave the recommendation of giving a one-time appropriation of $25,000 to each of the five volunteer departments and $10,000 to the Coffee County Rescue Squad.

The rescue squad sent Cordell a letter asking for financial assistance prior to the committee meeting, he told The News, which is why he added the organization into the appropriations recommendation.

Bryan added he would like to see each department create a report of budget line items that the extra funding was used for.

“We’ll know exactly what that money was used for,” Bryan said. “We want to have accountability and transparency.”

Commissioner David Orrick asked Cordell how he came up with the amount for each department and if they could be overfunding the North Coffee Fire Department. According to Orrick, North Coffee is not as tied to things that the other departments are, like extra sub-stations and vehicles.

Cordell said he was told that if he did not appropriate the funds evenly, other departments could claim they were not treated as fairly for their needs.

Bryan said the annual amount is based on the formula of what each department has, like vehicles and substations. He added he would like to treat them all equally, given that the one-time appropriation is happening due to COVID-19.

After finishing discussion, Commissioner Lynn Sebourn made the motion for the budget and finance committee to approve the one-time appropriation of $25,000 to each fire station and $10,000 for the rescue squad.

It will now go to the full commission, which is set to meet Nov. 10.