10.14.21

Attorneys Seth Hunter, left, and Jake King were hired by the Jones County Fire Council to represent it in an investigation that’s being conducted by the Office of the State Auditor. They met with the Board of Supervisors and fire coordinator Kyle Brooks in a special meeting on Tuesday.

Fire service’s contract with county expires Nov. 5

The Jones County Fire Council has to replace more than $161,000 in missing state money by Oct. 22. The council’s contract to provide fire protection in Jones County expires on Nov. 5, and the state auditor's office wants money that’s been withheld by the Board of Supervisors during the investigation into fraud by a former fire council president.

Those were the primary points in a special meeting of the Board of the Supervisors on Tuesday morning. Jones County Fire Coordinator Kyle Brooks and two Hattiesburg attorneys — Seth Hunter and Jake King —  were there representing the fire council.

They told the board that Investigator Layne Bounds of the Office of State Auditor met with them last week and said if they replaced $161,572.48 in state funds that were allocated to them by Oct. 22, that would put an end to the ongoing investigation.

“But the auditor’s office didn’t want to put anything in writing, so who’s to say that they can’t come back on us on the same case?” Brooks said.

The Board of Supervisors suspended their monthly allocations to the council this summer, at the beginning of the investigation into fraudulent use of funds.

The amount withheld from August and September totals approximately $100,000. The fire council is wanting that money to help meet the demand of the Office of the State Auditor so fire service will be uninterrupted. The contract with the county expires Nov. 5, and if it’s not signed, residents and businesses outside of the Laurel city limits will not have fire protection.

The board wants the council to sign the contract agreeing to its conditions before allocating more money to fund the fire service.

“We understand the board’s position of wanting to make sure this doesn’t happen again and that there have to be changes going forward,” Hunter said. “We want to move forward to try to allow the fire council to be provided funds ... with oversight.”

Board President Johnny Burnett said that the system of accountability the board is calling for is the same as the sheriff’s department, their own county barns and other entities that receive large sums of money from the county.

“We want to make sure the taxpayers of Jones County maintain the best fire department in the state,” he said. “We’re not looking in the past, we’re looking forward. The system has worked for 100 years, and the system we’ve got will work well for them.”

The proposal by the auditor’s office is for the 19 departments under the Jones County Fire Council to open separate accounts and adhere to purchasing processes that are in place for other county departments. Sixteen of the 19 departments would put $10,098.28 in the account — Ellisville, Sandersville and Soso receive their state rebate money through their respective municipalities — and that would satisfy the demand of the auditor’s office, Brooks said.

Some departments have all or part of the amount that’s needed, but some have no money. The Calhoun department, in particular, has been depleted, Brooks said.

That’s where former fire council president Lee Garick served as chief. He was under investigation for using tens of thousands of dollars in county and state funds — up to $400,000, according to some reports — and facing two counts of embezzlement when he took his life last month.

“We have only two weeks to accept the offer, so we need to move quick,” Brooks said.

The auditor’s office indicated that if its “plan is implemented, they will monitor them for a couple of months, then close the investigation,” King said.

Supervisor Larry Dykes echoed Brooks’ concern, saying that if the proposal wasn’t in writing, “It didn’t happen. We don’t want it to come back on us.”

The plan is workable, Burnett said.

“I hope the fire council will go along with what we’re trying to do,” he said.

The contract is the “elephant in the room,” Hunter said. If it’s not signed, “the fire departments can’t roll. They’ll want to, but they can’t leave the station because they won’t be insured.”

One of the biggest concerns of the council and chiefs of the different departments is that they’ll be “micromanaged” by the board, but that’s not the case, said Danielle Ashley, who serves as chief administrative officer and as board attorney.

Purchase orders will be needed for all items $2,000 or more, and they will have to get bids for any items that cost $5,000 or more. Only items that cost $1,000 or more will need to be listed on inventory, not “every pair of boots and socks,” as some have suggested, she said.

“They don’t have to call about every little purchase,” Ashley said, “but there are checks and balances.”

Hunter said that the auditor’s office told him that it is not coming after the fir council for funds Garick is accused of stealing. The auditor’s office does not comment on ongoing investigations, and this one is still considered open. The investigation by the Jones County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office is continuing for insurance purposes, DA Tony Buckley said.

The volunteer fire departments receive most of their funding from the county and some from the state. In the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, they were set to 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.

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