Equipment approved

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 13, 2009

By John Howell Sr.

Crenshaw firemen got a wish list filled in a special called meeting Wednesday afternoon.

For a fire department wish list, it was very modest: five sets of firefighter turnout gear, batteries for one fire truck, authorization to repair another fire truck, and the right to hold fund-raisers to purchase additional equipment, including additional sets of turnout gear.

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The meeting almost didn’t make.

Aldermen Alberta Bradley, David Whitsell and Patricia Dodson were present at the 5 p.m. time stated for the called meeting. So were representatives of the Crenshaw Volunteer Fire Department: Chief Lee Duncan, Assistant Chief Hubert Joiner, and veteran fireman Walter Henderson among them.

Though his absence was conspicuous, Mayor Sylvester Reed was much present in the small talk in the room as the group waited to see if Reed, or missing aldermen Shirley Morgan and Melvin Phipps would arrive. Fire Chief Duncan said that Wednesday night’s meeting was the third special meeting called to deal with questions about fire department equipment during the seven months that he has been the town’s fire chief.

Reed shouted down Duncan at the first called meeting last August, telling the fire chief that the town could not spend the $33,000 needed to buy 20 sets of turnout gear without two quotes. At the time, Duncan had located a company to finance the purchase with a 10 percent down payment, he told town officials. During the August 20, 2008 meeting, Duncan also cited county regulations which require require new firefighters to complete basic fire fighter training at the state’s fire training academy. The fire training academy requires trainees to come with approved turnout gear, Duncan said.

At another special called meeting one week later, Duncan came prepared with a state statute that showed the firefighting gear could be bought directly from a state-approved vendor at the state-contract price. However, the mayor and aldermen Morgan and Phipps did not attend the August 29, 2008 meeting. With no quorum, the remaining aldermen could take no action.

Purchase of the 20 sets of turnout gear was finally approved by unanimous vote at the September 2, 2008 meeting of Crenshaw’s mayor and aldermen. However, the financing that would have allowed the purchase fell through, municipal clerk Rene Ward said.

The company “can’t approve a loan until the town has an audit,” Duncan said by telephone following Wednesday night’s meeting. An audit currently underway involves four years of town records and is yet incomplete, he said.

“I do appreciate the aldermen who have tried to move this along,” the fire chief added, referring to their vote in September. “They approved the purchase; the town just couldn’t get the financing.”

At Wednesday night’s meeting, the fire chief again reminded town officials of the importance of the turnout gear: “If the rating bureau comes back at the end of the year and we don’t have 12 people average at in-town structure fires, our rating is going to drop,” he said. Standards of the Mississippi Fire Insurance Ratings Bureau determine ratings that set the amount of fire insurance premiums within a fire department’s coverage area.

“Considering that we got five sets of turnout gear for 25 firemen …, “ Duncan said, without finishing his statement.

Crenshaw is currently rated as class 8. “That’s saying a lot for a little town like Crenshaw,” Duncan said.

The arrival of Alderman Phipps gave the meeting a quorum and the meeting began with Alderman Bradley presiding as vice mayor.

Alderman Whitsell began by reporting his question by phone call to town board attorney Mary Brown of Grenada. He asked about using the fire station and adjacent property owned by the fire department as collateral for a loan to buy equipment.

“She said it’s not feasible, legally. Our hands are kind of tied now,” said Whitsell.

“What can they do with the money they have on hand now?” asked Crenshaw resident Bob Bryant.

Duncan said that the fire department currently had about $13,000 on hand from money rebated to the fire department from the county.

Municipal clerk Ward said that $7,000 would buy five sets of turnout gear.

The fire chief then said that he would apply for a Homeland Security Grant in March which could pay for turnout gear but that the grant would require a five percent match from the fire department and that the department would “find out in December” whether it had been awarded the grant.

“I’m hoping the fire department grant won’t be blocked by the MDA grant,” Duncan said, referring to a grant for housing that Crenshaw received in several years ago.

“MDA (the Mississippi Development Authority) told me on the phone that we would not be getting any more grants until …” complaints about shoddy and incomplete work paid for by the housing grant have been resolved, Bradley said.

“I’ve spent seven months on it now and have gotten very little cooperation from anybody in this town,” the fire chief said at one point during the meeting.

“The last board meeting I came to the mayor would even let me or (assistant chief) Hubert speak,” Duncan said later in the meeting, referring to his repeated attempts to bring the fire department’s needs before aldermen.

“He has not approved us to buy two batteries,” the fire chief continued. “We turn in requisitions; sometimes y’all see them, sometimes you don’t. He’s supposed to turn them in to you.”

Bradley suggested that the fire chief provide copies of the purchase requisitions to each alderman in addition to the mayor.

Duncan replied that last August when he gave aldermen copies of his initial request for turnout gear, “ he (Reed) accused me of going behind his back.”

Aldermen first approved Whitsell’s motion that the fire department purchase turnout gear with available funds and additional funds as they become available. Dodson provided the second and with Phipps “aye” vote, the measure was approved 3-0. Aldermen then approved, again with a 3-0 vote, a motion authorizing the fire chief to apply for a Homeland Security grant to pay for fire department equipment.

A third 3-0 vote approved the purchase of two batteries for a fire truck and a fourth vote authorized the fire department to get repair estimates for a pumper that fails to crank. The final unanimous vote gave the fire department the right to hold any fund raisers that its membership approves.

“Y’all are making the vote but the mayor’s got to sign the check,” said volunteer fireman Walter Henderson who later observed: “I used to be the youngest one on the fire department and now I’m the oldest.”