Intentions questioned by public at fire committee meeting

Kim Callis and Fire Chief Vaughn show fire committee members Lillie Feggins-Boone and Delores Luster around the fitness center.

The Town of South Hill Fire Committee met at the fire department on Monday morning to view the space designated for a fitness center.

A request was submitted to the Town Council for approval at the June meeting last Monday night for a fitness center to be placed on the second floor of the firehouse. The former kitchen space will be filled with equipment purchased through donated funds or equipment donated from local supporters. The transition from a kitchen to a gym would come at no cost to the Town.

Town Manager Kim Callis recommended delaying the approval of the request until the Fire Committee could look at the space and make a recommendation.

Chief Vaughn, the Volunteers, and members of the community have questioned the motives behind the decision to prolong the process. Code Compliance Official David Hash was asked at the Town Council meeting if he had any concerns about converting the space into a gym to which he answered, “no”.

“We had the Building Inspector come in. We had permits pulled and multiple inspections have been performed. The room is finished. We took a lot of the weight out of that room when we removed the dishes, furniture, and appliances,” explained Vaughn at the Council meeting.

Chief Vaughn did not understand where the concerns were coming from and pointed out that the fire department had followed all of the proper procedures and provided supporting documentation when submitting the request. Councilman Joseph Taylor responded by saying that he did not think anyone was against the department getting a fitness center but stressed the importance of following procedures and having committee recommendations.

Councilmen Honeycutt and Moss voted to allow the fire department to move forward with the renovation but were outnumbered by the majority. The decision was made to have the Fire Committee look at the space and to have the Council vote electronically either for or against the request.

When the Fire Committee met on Monday with Chief Vaughn, Mr. Callis, Volunteers, and members of the public, Mr. Callis explained that an electronic vote would no longer be possible. He said that Town Manager, Anna Cratch, who was present and taking notes at the June 14 meeting, stays current on policy and procedure and explained to him that it would be illegal to vote electronically on the matter. The decision was made to call an emergency Council meeting for Friday, June 25 at 8 a.m.

Members of the public questioned why the fire department was required to follow all of these policies and procedures when other Town owned buildings were renovated without meetings and Council approval.

One citizens asked, “So did the committee meet at the police department when they started renovation? Or how about with the town shop that you are getting ready to build? Was there a committee meeting with that? It seems like this all revolves around you Mr. Callis. Everything that slows down [at the fire department] is you.”

Another spoke up and asked, “What is your riff with the Fire Department? It seems like you have a riff with the fire department. What is the problem?”

Callis answered that the Town Staff thought that the project was something that was being planned for two years in the future. “I found out that it was already happening by accident. I didn’t know that it was going on. The Town guys had come up here and were working on it. I went to our Director of Municipal Services (C.J. Dean) and said we have something that we need to address. He said, ‘Well let me get done with the fire department project’ and I didn’t know what it was.”

Callis went on to say that whenever you make a change to a facility that does not change the function or use of the facility the Town goes along with it. “At the police department they had CARES Act money and they did not change the function of that facility one bit. They added a wall to make it secure for the public and the police department. This [referring to the fire department renovation] changes the entire use of it. We’re in favor of [the gym] but we have to go about it the right way.”

Chief Vaughn explained to Mr. Callis that he was notified of the suppression system malfunctions in the space on March 11 and that he responded to the email and did not understand how Mr. Callis could say that he did not know about the project.

The public then asked that Mr. Callis let members of the Fire Committee speak. Lillie Feggins-Boone said, “We are already in agreement so as far as I’m concerned we’re through with it.”

Councilman Gavin Honeycutt, who was there in attendance and is not a member of the Fire Committee, asked if we were still under emergency protocols because of COVID. “So we can act on this because we are still in a state of emergency. This public is outraged.”

Honeycutt read minutes from a previous meeting that stated that members of the Fire Committee had met with Chief Vaughn less than two months prior at which time he explained the use of the space. “You all said at the Council meeting that you had no idea what it was,” said Honeycutt.

Delores Luster both disagreed with the statement saying that what she said was that she had not seen the space that was less than 50 feet from her at the time of said meeting. She said that Chief Vaughn pointed out where the gym would be but did not go into detail.

“I think that everyone here, and I’m included in that, wishes that this had gone a little more smoothly. I could tell you that all of us support the fire department. I personally support the fire department, always have and always will. We wish it had gone better and we will try to go about it better moving forward but we have to do it the right way. Going forward from here today we are going to make our recommendation that this gets approved.”

A citizen asked Mr. Callis what his recommendation would be for the gym. Callis responded that he would recommend it be approved.

“So you’re saying that [the gym] should be approved. So whatever goes on in this town, you’re calling the shots?” asked the gentlemen. Callis responded by saying, “That’s not true.”

The citizen, a former SHVFD member, said that he usually does not get involved in town matters but has an issue with what is being required of the fire department to get the requests they make approved. “I was a member of this fire department when it was down the hill. I have great respect for the former Fire Chiefs. This was built up here and we have never had these problems. This is me talking but you know what I think the problem is? It’s personal vendetta. You don’t run a business like this. You run a business as a business. No personal stuff gets involved. If personal feelings get involved, you need to get out. Bottom line.”

The gentleman then said that he and Lillie Feggins-Boone had a conversation in passing about the need of a fire committee in the Town. “You never [informed] me that there was a fire committee and you never [informed] me that you were the Chairman of the fire committee.”

Feggins-Boone interjected and asked the gentlemen to hold on because “we were talking about other things”. The man said that he was telling it like it is to which Feggins-Boone replied, “No you’re not telling it like it is.”

“If you can’t acknowledge that then I’m not so sure you can [make the best decision] for this fire department.” The man continued, “I was under Rosser Wells too. I went to school with him and think the world of him. He’s a great man and a great fire chief but his time is gone. So now you go to the Chief that was voted in by the members. You don’t bypass him and go to another Chief and ask questions.”

Councilman Moss asked why Mr. Callis did not send members of the Fire Committee the photos of the suppression system malfunctions when he received them. Callis responded, “When I got it, it was sent to me with copies to the Town Council so I sent it to the Town Council.”

Chief Vaughn said that the email was copied to the Fire Committee as well. Callis and Feggins-Boone attempted to move the conversation forward but members of the public along with Councilman Moss demanded an answer to the question why were the emailed photos not sent to the Fire Committee?

Callis explained to Moss that he thought the email needed to be sent to Town Council and that a letter regarding the renovation left on his desk by Vaughn was not addressed to him.

Moss asked Vaughn if the department had spent any money on the room as of the meeting date. Vaughn answered, “No.”

Moss asked about a past renovation project in the kitchen downstairs. “You said in the Town Council meeting that it was approximately $45,000. Where did those funds come from?” Vaughn, who was Deputy Chief under Rosser Wells at the time, answered that the money for the project was taken out of the general fire department funds.

“Did that project go to Town Council or the Fire Committee at the time?” asked Moss. Vaughn answered, “No.”

“So we went from a truck bay to a kitchen, which is a structural change, for $45,000?” asked Moss. Vaughn replied, “Yes.”

Moss made a motion to recommend approval of the fire department request. The Town Council will meet on Friday, June 25 at 8 a.m. at Town Hall.