Como once ‘robbed Peter to pay Paul’ with fire department funds, chief says
Published 11:03 am Friday, October 20, 2017
Como once ‘robbed Peter to pay Paul’ with fire department funds, chief says
By John Howell
Como Fire Chief Randy Perkins said that he will retire from the volunteer position he has held for almost 32 years after the town’s board of mayor and aldermen took no action on his request that the fire department be allowed to continue managing its own funds for purchase of selected equipment.
Perkins said that after he joined, “the fire department got into an argument with the town and out of 20 people we had 14 to resign and we had six people left. I got thrust into the job as chief, at that point I was the senior person.”
“All we had was a couple of trucks and some old, ragged turnouts,” Perkins said. “We also had no credit because the town would take that check and stick it into general fund, and if we needed stuff we’d come ask the town to get it. The town would decide whether we needed it or not. It might be a month before we would finally get it. We had no credit from our vendors. … If we ordered something we’d have to send them a check and then they’d send us the stuff,” Perkins continued.
“And then the town got into some pretty serious trouble, tax trouble,” the fire chief said, referring to 2007 when the IRS froze the town’s bank accounts after officials failed to deposit trust fund witholdings from employee paychecks.
“At that point it was decided that we would take that county check; we’d be totally transparent with our account; we’d let y’all know everything that was happening. At the end of the year we’d reconcile what we did with the money (which) we have to do anyway with the county,” Perkins said.
“We’ve done that; it’s worked fine,” he said. “I decided back then I wasn’t going to do business that other way any more,” Perkins said.
“You have to depend on too many people — and y’all are all good people — but when money gets short, everybody’s robbing Peter to pay Paul and that money goes into the general fund and next thing you know when we want something we can’t get it,” Perkins continued.
“I think it’s a clear misunderstanding,” town attorney Revonda Griffin said. “They just deposited that check into an account because they weren’t aware of it. It’s a simple fix just to transfer the money into the proper account and it will be done.”
“Me and Alice been talking about it for a couple of months,” Perkins said, referring to town clerk Alice Houston. “The proper account, the way we’ve been doing it, is our fire account that we put our butt roast money and our fund-raiser money, our donation money.”
“This check that you’re talking about, half of us may not have been aware that the check even came in yet,” Alderwoman Ruby Higgenbottom said. “What we can do is, like the attorney said, we can take it and do it the way that you want it to be done.”
“Are y’all going to put it back in our account with our other money and let us buy the stuff that we want?” Perkins asked.
“If it’s official, if it’s legal,” Higgenbottom replied.
Perkins said that inquiry was made to the Mississippi Insurance Dept. whose representative, State Fire Coordinator Brad Smith, replied by e-mail, “It really doesn’t matter as long as the money is spent according to the guidelines,” Perkins said, paraphrasing the e-mail reply.
“Where the problem came is we’re trying to fill out papers with numbers that we don’t know anything about,” Mayor Everette Hill said. “We have to do that every year.
“But, as the e-mail said, the best way for the money to go is through the city clerk,” Hill continued, referring to the same e-mail. “Having the purchases go through the clerk usually provides for a good safety net to make sure purchases are made in accordance with state purchase laws,” he said, reading from a portion of the e-mail.
“Whatever goes on with this check, we’re responsible for it. If y’all want to give it to them,” the mayor continued, speaking to aldermen, “I’ve got no problem with it. Y’all vote for it, but leave the mayor clear of it. I don’t see a problem with him getting whatever he needs through the town, what’s wrong with that? It’s a fire department account; it’s (not) like we want the money. Don’t judge this board on previous boards.”
“Every one of y’all are fine people,” Perkins replied before citing the numbers of mayors, aldermen and city clerks who have been in office during his tenure as fire chief. “When money runs short, if that money’s sitting there they say, ‘let’s take it and we can give it to them when they need it.’ It doesn’t work that way,” Perkins said.
Perkins also cited the lack of town government support for a burn ban it implemented at his recommendation and the lack of a response to his request for nominal pay for volunteer firefighters.
“I begged y’all to help me with reimbursement for firemen so that we could get a better quality of firemen and we could keep them on there, but you didn’t do it,” Perkins continued.
“Last election you changed the keys to city hall and didn’t give me one … tried to evict me from city hall,” he said, voice volume rising slightly.
“You’ve got an office there at the fire department; all you’ve got to do is clean it up,” the mayor said.
“That’s why we went over there. We don’t have room over there,” Perkins responded.
“All it needs is cleaning up. I came down there and looked at it,” Hill said.
“Where are we going to put the stuff that’s in there?” Hill asked.
“I’m not feeling the love, I’ve got to tell you,” Perkins said. “It seems like there are people that are trying to get rid of me.”
(As these words were spoken, a Como fire truck drove past on Main Street, siren blaring)
“We both feel the same way. I don’t feel the love either,” Hill said.
“I told y’all I’m not going to do business through the town and do it that way. This is the Como Fire Department, it’s not the Randy Fire Department,” Perkins said. “Y’all were elected to make decisions to run the thing, and I understand that, so it’s up to y’all what you want to do. … Y’all can speak for right now but five years from now we don’t know who’s going to be up here and what’s going to be done.”
“Okay, that’s up to the board,” Hill said.
“I think we all need to understand that the fire department is probably the most important department in this whole town. If we don’t have a good fire department, we’re going to see your insurance rates go sky high. I think we need to work with them any way we can,” Alderman Melvin Crockett said.
In subsequent discussion the mayor and town clerk questioned the problem of having the money go through town coffers to have a record and the fire chief maintained that anything about the account under fire department control was open to town officials.
Perkins said that the fire department receives an annual check from the state, which is placed in an account to accrue toward the purchase of a new fire truck. The county rebate check — the money in question — has been placed in a separate account under the fire department’s control along with money donated to the department and earned in fund-raisers. Perkins’ question arose when the town deposited the annual county rebate check into the account with the money from state funds.
“The man said we could do it either way,” Perkins said, referring to the rating bureau’s email.
Attorney Griffin then re-read the portion of the state fire coordinator’s e-mail that supported the town’s handling of fire department purchases.
“I think where everybody’s getting caught up is, what has usually happened,” Griffin said. “If this board decides that they want to do things differently, it’s not necessarily wrong, it’s just a different way.”
“It’s easier for the clerk and the town to account for those funds if those funds go through the town,” Griffin continued.
“It’s worked fine; it’s not broke, there’s no need to fix it. That’s all I’m saying,” Perkins said.
Perkins said that the fire department would meet the following Tuesday, October 17, to elect officers.
“If we try to rearrange this like we’re trying to do, … I’m not going to accept any nomination,” said Perkins, who has served as an unpaid volunteer chief.
The election was postponed after two firemen were unable to attend.