The Board of Supervisors had a special meeting to put out a financial firestorm.
A substantial amount of money is missing from the Jones County Fire Council fund, several sources have confirmed, and supervisors met Friday morning to study different ways to set up the accounting and prevent future theft.
“We’re looking at the financial situation, looking at controlling the funds,” board President Johnny Burnett said. “It’s all under investigation. That’s all I can say.”
Sources with knowledge of the case revealed that as much as $400,000 is missing from the account of the council that helps fund the county’s 19 volunteer fire departments. Multiple agencies — local state and federal — are reportedly involved in the investigation.
During the special meeting, officials alluded to something that had hap
pened to cause them to want to change the accounting system that volunteer fire departments operate under to one that will have board oversight.
Brad Smith of the State Fire Marshal’s Office was at the meeting to offer alternatives to the setup at Jones County. In the current system, the county “has 19 fire chiefs and 19 personalities,” he said, and finances flow through the Fire Council.
In the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2022, the volunteer fire departments will receive $669,840 from county taxpayers and $250,000 in state rebate money. The combined balance at the beginning of the year was $610,000.
“Jones County is the only county in the state with a Fire Council,” Smith told supervisors.
He suggested consolidating districts with each supervisor appointing someone to the fire service who’s answerable to him.
“You’re the ones it’s going to fall back on … sooner or later” if there’s a problem, Smith said.
In the past, some fire officials complained that the county’s purchasing process slowed things down too much, Chief Financial Officer Charles Miller said.
“Slow is better than large mistakes,” Smith said.
Smith said that he and his office are glad to offer guidance for changing the system in Jones County. He recommended consolidation, noting that it “almost always has a positive effect” on multiple fronts, including improved fire ratings that result in lower insurance rates for property owners and less paperwork for chiefs.
“Those guys volunteer their time,” Smith said. They spend “countless hours” responding to incidents, training and maintaining their departments and equipment. If the accounting is at the county level rather than at individual departments, “That’s one less headache taken off the guys.”
When Smith asked if there were checks-and-balances in the accounting system before, Jones County Fire Coordinator Kyle Brooks said, “That’s a long story … That’s what landed us in the situation we’re in now.”
Brooks has been consulting with Smith’s office since the accounting problems were discovered.
“Kyle has really stepped up, filling us in on this situation,” Burnett said.
Brooks was hired as fire coordinator in September 2019.
“I can see the progress Jones County has made,” Smith said. “You have a lot to be proud of. Bad as what happened is, you can’t be dragged down into the mud.”
Burnett said the service has “come a long way” since he was a volunteer in 1987 and they received $500 and no rebate money, raising money with bake sales and cooked chickens.
“The volunteer firefighters in Jones County have always been good,” Supervisor Larry Dykes said. “Every department goes above and beyond. We need to get a checks-and-balances system so we won’t have to deal with this again.”
It’s going to be a tough situation, Brooks said, but it is needed.
“Some of these people have been invested in their department for 30-plus years, so telling them things are going to change is going to be difficult,” he said. “We’re probably going to lose some, but we may gain some. That needs to be considered before we do anything on a whim.”
Brooks will talk to the chiefs and make some recommendations, but it’s “going to take a while” before any decisions are made about the future fire system setup, Burnett said.