Feeling the heat, rescue squad weighs changes
SALISBURY — After coming under fire from county commissioners, the rescue squad is considering changes to its leadership and structure.
Coyt Karriker was not nominated to continue as chief at the Rowan County Rescue Squad’s annual membership meeting in early November. Nominations for leadership positions are taken annually and confirmed each December.
Eddie Cress, assistant chief, was named as Karriker’s future replacement.
Other nominations include Steve Schenk to replace Harold Morefield as board president, Mary Ponds to replace board member Martha Yates-Bolman and and Doug Jones to serve another two-year term on the board.
“There’s a nominating committee put in place in October, and they for whatever reason chose me as a nominee,” Cress said. “Coyt’s not on the ballot. He declined.”
Karriker said he doesn’t know who is on the nominating committee, and he has no comment on the nominations until a vote is held to confirm them. That’s set to happen at the next membership meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the rescue squad office, 1140 Julian Road.
Harold Morefield, president of the rescue squad board, said he also won’t talk about the nominations until they are confirmed next week.
“It’s not going to be effective until they vote,” Morefield said.
The rescue squad is a nonprofit organization, not a public agency, but it receives a large portion of its funding from Rowan County. It provides rescue services and backup ambulance service for the county, as well as assistance on certain fire and accident calls.
The county commissioners have all praised the work of the squad’s members, but some have repeatedly criticized its leadership, budget and policies.
Commissioner Jim Sides accused Karriker of using “underhanded tactics” to secure a new contract at a November 2011 meeting. He said the chief asked the county attorney to draw up the contract without the full board’s knowledge or approval.
Karriker said at the time that Sides’ accuations were “totally out of line.”
Sides and Commissioner Carl Ford also have raised concerns about the way the squad handles its money. That includes Sides’ objections to the fact that the squad still receives county money originally meant for debt service, even though the debt has already been paid off.
Squad officials have argued that the money is needed to pay its rising costs and maintain its services for the county.
At the end of last year, the county created a rescue squad committee made up of commissioners and staff members to examine the squad’s role and funding. As a result, the squad’s duties were clarified and defined in its new five-year contract in May, but the county still didn’t set a guaranteed funding level.
If it wants to rescue $50,000 of county money, the board also must make changes to the way it operates.
“We are looking at making some modifications to the bylaws,” Karriker said. “Some have been requested by the commission, and some need to be updated anyway.”
The county’s allocation to the rescue squad will soon drop from $350,000 to $300,000 if it does not revise its bylaws to meet recommendations approved by a majority of the board. Commissioners already cut the squad’s funding from $400,000 in June of this year.
County Manager Gary Page said the squad now has until March 29, which will mark the end of the first quarter of 2013, to submit its revised bylaws to commissioners.
“Some of the board members felt that technically, the rescue squad chief didn’t really have to take direction from the rescue squad board, and that was probably not the right business model for a nonprofit organization receiving funding from the county,” Page said.
At the June meeting, Sides said the rescue squad board should be the decision-making authority in the agency, and it should appoint the chief and its own chairman. Right now, the squad appoints the board, the chief and the chairman.
Sides declined to comment for this story, along with several members of the rescue squad and its board.
Karriker said the commissioners’ request is just part of the reason that the squad is looking at its bylaws.
“We typically go through the bylaws every couple of years, just like we do with the standard operating guidelines, and provide updates where necessary,” he said.
The rescue squad’s bylaws committee has met just once so far. Page said he has asked the board to give him updates a few times over the past several months, but they said they hadn’t been given proper guidance on what changes would have to be made to avoid losing the $50,000.
“I think maybe in the middle of October, I sent them a letter and said, ‘Look, Mr. Morefield, you were at the meetings in June when we did the budget,’” Page said. “I just said, ‘Rather than push or badger you to get that done, you’ve got until March 29.’”
Morefield said he’s now waiting on the squad’s attorney, Jeremy Carter, to email him with recommended changes to the bylaws. But Carter has recently been ill and has not sent them yet, he said.
“We’re trying to comply with the county as much as possible,” Morefield said. “This has to come before the membership, too, and that’s something the county needs to realize.”
In addition to the structural changes, Commissioner Carl Ford said he’d like to see more transparency regarding its finances. Some nonprofits who receive only $5,000 from the county give more detailed reports than the rescue squad does, Ford said.
“Taxpayers want to know where the money is being spent,” Ford said.
Commissioners Jon Barber and Raymond Coltrain both agree that the rescue squad’s bylaws should be updated, but they have both said that the squad’s funding shouldn’t depend on it.
“There needs to be change,” Barber said. “It needs to be structured like the volunteer fire departments.”
Each volunteer fire department in Rowan County is managed by a board of directors elected by its membership, or property owners within its tax district. The county also appoints three fire commissioners to oversee each department’s budgeting and spending.
Coltrain and Commissioner Chad Mitchell, who voted with the majority to lower the funding if the bylaws aren’t changed, could not be reached for comment.
Cress said “there will be progress” made on the squad’s relationship with the county, but he can’t comment on it yet.
“We will do what’s right,” he said. “We’re going to do what’s right.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.