The Grand Bay Volunteer Fire District potentially “opened a can of worms” by filing a preliminary injunction against a former firefighter who quietly filled out paperwork to become a member of the district’s board of directors earlier this year.
According to records, board trustee Janie Sarver, wife of then-Fire Chief Bill Sarver, questioned whether former Grand Bay volunteer firefighter Joe Dozier met the requirement of property ownership to serve on the board.
In a circuit court motion, Sarver sought to disqualify Dozier based on a search of property tax records that came up empty. But after a trial, Judge Rusty Johnston ruled in favor of Dozier, concluding that the law stipulates that a trustee simply own property in the district, not “real” property. Dozier proved his eligibility by providing the court with a 2010 bill of sale for a mobile home, which he placed within the district on Hamilton Farm Road and claims as his primary residence.
Dozier, who characterized the injunction as a lawsuit, said as a former Grand Bay firefighter, he never felt comfortable with its chain of command.
“In my opinion, the Grand Bay department didn’t always respond to some of the calls it was able to respond to,” he said. “You might be on call and have three or four other guys on call, then be dispatched to an accident on Highway 90 but be told by the chief to stand down.”
Dozier said he was invited to work in Bayou la Batre and left Grand Bay after Bill Sarver told him he couldn’t be active at two departments simultaneously. Afterward, Dozier said he was looking for an opportunity to return and serve on the district board. He is currently an active volunteer in Fowl River and Dauphin Island.
“My intention was to become a board member so I could ask questions and not be told to shut up,” he said. “I thought I’d be in a better position to understand how the department is run and possibly recommend some change. So I filled out the paperwork in probate court and ran unopposed and when I was elected all hell broke loose.”
Rebel Warbington, Sarver’s son-in-law, who is also the treasurer of the district board, said the injunction was simply a question of language and Dozier is “making something out of nothing.”
“That was one of the discrepancies of the probate court,” he explained at board meeting Nov. 21. “The paperwork you sign says that you own real property in the district, but the statewide bill from the ‘80s says you only have to be a ‘property owner.’ So that’s when it came up that it was between ‘real property’ and ‘property.’ So the bill says one thing and the paperwork says another.
“If a mobile home is property, is a car property?” Warbington asked. “What isn’t property and who can’t serve on the board? It really opens a can of worms.”
Janie Sarver said it wasn’t a lawsuit, even though the proceedings forced the burden of proof on Dozier and Probate Judge Don Davis. Davis was dismissed from the action, but Dozier spent $7,000 to defend himself. After the court decided in his favor, Dozier thought he would dive into the board’s finances.
“I might have come in with a little chip on my shoulder, but I also wanted to be an effective board member,” Dozier said. “In order to do that, I would have to understand the district’s financial situation and every time I asked for records or specifics, I was given some excuse why they wouldn’t provide them.”
Dozier enlisted the advice of Jimmy Paine, an assistant chief in Bayou la Batre who was the fire chief in Grand Bay before Sarver. Based on his previous knowledge of the district and his current relationship with the department’s operations through a mutual aid agreement, Paine said he was suspicious of the board’s animosity toward Dozier.
“When people push back on you when you ask where the money is going, something ain’t right somewhere,” Paine said. “I promised when I was fire chief that this department would follow every law and open the books to anyone anytime and today they’re not making those promises. All you get is a balance sheet. Maybe there is nothing to it, but why are they pushing back so much?”
The Grand Bay VFD is governed by two independent boards, the district board and a fire department board. When Dozier arrived, the district board was also comprised of Janie Sarver, Warbington, longtime member John Lansing and Grand Bay business owner Tony Baggett. The fire department board consisted of Janie and Bill Sarver, their daughter Lela Warbington, firefighters Mike Byrd and Shawna Barron, the daughter-in-law of assistant chief Michael Barron.
Paine said although he had little insight into the operations of the district since he left, with professional experience in Mobile and Bayou la Batre, he was concerned about how the current board members could promote nepotism and cronyism. Dozier and Paine said they contacted Grand Bay resident George Jackson, one of the few residents who ever engages in the fire district’s meetings, who later filed a written request for records.
“We started that department in the 1950s fighting fires with a five-gallon bucket,” Jackson told Lagniappe after he filed the request. “As I got older, I stopped participating, but I started going to the meetings two or three years ago after [the board] proposed a tax increase but wouldn’t hand out a yearly budget. I thought something really odd was happening with the chief’s wife on both the district board and the separate fire department board and some of his other family members on those same boards. I would ask for records and get shrugged off.”
Jackson’s request was denied because Jackson hadn’t submitted the proper form, but in October this newspaper received a copy of the form and was provided a cursory review of records Dec. 13.
Volunteer fire districts in the state of Alabama are permitted to levy a voluntary fee on property taxes collected within their districts. In Grand Bay, the fee is $35 per year, which provides the district with an operating budget of less than $130,000 per year. Other funds are received from the state and county to offset insurance costs. The fee is collected by the revenue commissioner over nine months and returned to the district every two weeks.
The Grand Bay VFD has at least five financial accounts including a money market account for the district, an associated checking account and a savings account. The district provides the fire department board an allocation of $3,500 per month, which is deposited into a checking account used for operational expenses including fuel, light and phone bills and minor repairs. The fire department also has an unrestricted account, which typically has a balance of less than $2,000 and over a period of two years, appeared to be rarely used for minor department purchases.
This month, the district’s money market account had a balance of $218,374, a number Janie Sarver said was the biggest it’s ever been. Besides the $42,000 in annual payments to the department, the district also makes $50,000 in payments toward tanker trucks purchased within the past three years, $10,000 for miscellaneous gear and $4,500 for insurance on two fire stations.
The district’s savings account has increased from $146,267 in Feb. 2012 to $177,874 in Nov. 2013, with the goal of eventually taking care of its truck payments or building a new south station.
The board also provided financial statements and receipts, but no independent audit of funds.
At the board meeting Nov. 21, Bill Sarver defended the district’s record keeping, saying “this has always been an open board meeting” and “any time [someone] can request information, and we’ve got it readily available.”
Janie Sarver said in her 20 years on the board, no one has ever requested records and people rarely even attend the meetings. She said the department has done “everything it can” to encourage community involvement, but also stressed the volunteer nature of the whole operation, conceding there’s only so much that can be done in one’s spare time.
At the board meeting Dec. 19, both Janie and Bill Sarver tendered their resignations, citing 20 years of service and a family member’s declining health as reasons for stepping aside. While both pledged to remain active in the department, each board nominated new members and assistant chief Michael Barron was promoted to acting chief, pending a vote of the firefighters.
Speaking generally about the department in November, Barron said it typically has about 10 active firefighters from a roster of about 29 available. He said in his experience, the department has responded to anywhere between five and 200 calls a month. He characterized it as an “urban interface” fire department, which also does a lot of vehicle extrications but is not trained for most EMS response.
Regarding the situation of Dozier’s appointment on the board, Barron said the department would work with him the same as any other member.
“When he applied we said, ‘wait a minute,’ we thought it was a joke,” he said. “But the judge ruled in his favor, he’s here and he’s an effective member of the board. But the questions about the financing goes on and on and it’s burning resources. I’d like to see it end.”
Rebel Warbington, who remains as treasurer of the district, said beginning in January, he’ll produce a monthly summary sheet showing balances, deposits and withdrawals to all accounts. Meanwhile Dozier, who wasn’t at the most recent board meeting, says he still feels left out.
“Was I invited to the records review?” he asked. “Was a member of the community? We’re the people you have to be accountable to and until I see some accountability, I’m not satisfied.”