By C.V. Moore
As a months-long State Police investigation into the possible misuse of funds by Smithers Fire Chief Tim Whittington unfolds, Fayette County continues to fund the department, though with a heavier hand than usual.
“We are providing services and funds to them, but they are not touching the funds,” says Fayette County Fire Coordinator Steve Cruikshank. “They send me an invoice and we write a check. They are not handling any county funds.”
Typically fire departments in the county pay their bills and then ask for reimbursement.
The state cut off funding from the department in 2011 because it did not follow rules for spending state grant money, according to media reports.
An audit of the department by the Post Audit Division of the state Legislature is ongoing, and Smithers remains shut out of state funding because it has not turned over all the financial information requested for the procedure.
The Kanawha County Commission, which has historically contributed funds to the department because it also answers calls across the county line, withheld funding this fall. They say the department will not share its financial statements with the county.
The town of Smithers has also washed its hands of the fire department and does not provide any funding or support.
Fayette County’s fire levy funds may well be the only source of money left for the department.
This levy period, $36,000 in county funds have been allocated to the Smithers fire department, according to Cruikshank.
In addition, he says the county performs expensive testing and maintenance of the department’s equipment. A recent test of a hose, for example, cost $40,000.
Cruikshank says he has not gotten “every bit of info” he wants from the department, but that his office has a “good handle” on the county funds currently being spent.
“But we’re not denying services to the fire departments. That would be, in effect, denying services to citizens,” he says.
“We’re concerned about the situation, and things have to run their course, but in the mean time ... there’s always going to be a response to the area. That’s not a problem.”
He says the Fayette County Office of Emergency Services is “monitoring the situation,” though the other agencies are conducting official investigations.
Cruikshank shut the department down in May because it did not have workers’ compensation coverage. The situation was remedied soon thereafter, and the station reopened.
John Lopez, a Smithers resident and Fayette County commissioner, says he has a high opinion of the fire chief and believes the State Police investigation will reveal that there’s more to the story.
“Until he’s proven guilty, I’m a believer that there was no foul play there,” he says.
“Until the facts are determined, the best thing I can say right now is that a lot of people have questions and evidently the department has not been forthcoming with the answers,” says Cruikshank.
The fire department’s business office phone has been disconnected. The State Police’s investigating officer could be reached for comment.
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