Despite the Washington County Commissioners’ 4-1 vote Jan. 29 to no longer recognize the Fairplay fire company, and to no longer provide it funding or in-kind services, the fire company has members who continue to work to raise funds and who still are receiving training for emergency services.
“We think we should be reinstated,” President Bill Pennington said Wednesday night. A group of 25 fire company members sat around tables in the fire company’s social hall that night while Pennington and Fire Chief Leonard Heller answered questions from The Herald-Mail concerning the fire company’s decertification by the county and its plans for the future.
The fire company members are volunteers who work hard to support the fire company, Pennington said.
“I want to serve my community and they’ve taken that away from me. We worked hard to train and be certified,” said Donna Heller, an emergency medical technician and the fire chief’s wife.
Ed Kuczynski, the fire company’s attorney, said in a phone interview Wednesday that Fairplay fire officials are “open to discussion as to how to ... tweak” the comprehensive plan the fire company submitted to the county task force or to expand certain areas the task force believes need to be more detailed or addressed further.
“Obviously, we’re trying to open up a dialogue with the county commissioners at this point to discuss under which conditions or how it is firefighting privileges (could) be reinstated,” Kuczynski said.
Fire company members said Wednesday night the commissioners, as a group, have not come down to Fairplay to talk to them, despite repeated requests.
“We want to see if there’s a way to resolve this,” Pennington said.
Lost gaming license
The commissioners’ decision to no longer recognize the fire company cost it its county gaming license, said David Grabill, the fire company’s treasurer.
On Feb. 1, Fairplay voluntarily turned over its gaming license to the county, according to Assistant County Administrator Sarah Lankford Sprecher.
The gaming license permitted the fire company to sell tip jars.
Grabill said he was contacted the week of the commissioners’ vote by James Hovis, the county’s director of community grant management, regarding Fairplay’s gaming license.
Grabill said Hovis told him that if he voluntarily turned in Fairplay’s gaming license, Hovis would hold the gaming license for Fairplay until the matter with the fire company was settled and then return the license to the fire company.
Sprecher was contacted with a request for a comment on the matter from Hovis. Instead of Hovis contacting The Herald-Mail directly, Sprecher confirmed via email that was true.
Grabill said Hovis told him that if he refused to turn in the license and Hovis had to fill out the proper paperwork, Fairplay’s gaming license would be revoked.
Via email, Sprecher stated that was an inaccurate statement.
Pennington said three bonanzas to be held at the fire company’s social hall recently were canceled because the fire company wouldn’t have tip jars available. The bonanzas were events to raise money for other organizations, while the bookings for the social hall and the tip-jar proceeds would have benefited the fire company, he said.
The fire company is an independent nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, Kuczynski said.
Asked if the fire company still was tax-exempt after the commissioners’ Jan. 29 decision, Kuczynski said, “Of course they are.”
The commissioners have no control over the fire company’s tax-exempt, nonprofit status, he said.
As a “non-stock, nonprofit membership corporation, they can serve that purpose in more ways than fighting fires,” Kuczynski said.
The ultimate outcome — whether the fire company is reinstated — will determine whether the fire company has to alter its primary purpose to do what is necessary to remain a 501(c)(3) organization, he said.
Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co. owns its land, vehicles and equipment, according to Kuczynski and Pennington.
The fire station complex is on a hill on 22.29 acres at 18002 Tilghmanton Road, according to online Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation records. Near the complex are pavilion areas and a stage the fire company owns, Pennington said.
The fire company also owns an old elementary school across the street, at 18005 Tilghmanton Road, that is used for storage, Pennington said.
The main complex includes four bays housing emergency service vehicles; an older two-bay area that houses an antique firetruck and a car given to the fire company by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office; restrooms; a lounge with cushioned seating, a TV and a pool table; and an old social hall upstairs the fire company intends someday to remodel for a bunkroom, Pennington said.
The complex also includes a banquet hall with a large kitchen, a walk-in cooler and a walk-in freezer, said Pennington, who gave The Herald-Mail a short tour of the main complex.
Vehicles in the fire station include three firetrucks and Special Unit 12, which was used for first response on emergency medical service calls, Pennington said.
While fire company members cannot respond to emergency service calls, they continue to work on fundraising and training, they said.
Brian Chaney, head of the fire company’s Standing Committee, said five people were to attend a Firefighter I class over the weekend in Cresaptown, Md., in Allegany County.
“That tells you how dedicated they are,” Chaney said.
If the fire company were allowed to respond to calls now, it would have 23 firefighters and 22 EMS providers — with some overlap between the groups — who could respond to calls, Fire Chief Leonard Heller said.
Before the suspension, Fairplay had 18 firefighters who also could provide EMS services, plus four additional EMS providers, he said.
The fire company raises money for its expenses by charging groups to use the banquet hall, including catering the fire company provides, fire company officials said.
The fire company also has allowed the banquet hall to be used for some fundraisers, for which the fire company didn’t accept money, said Paul Brown, the fire company member in charge of Fairplay’s fundraisers.
Those events included a fundraiser the fire company held to benefit an injured child and a fundraiser Food Lion held to benefit a boy who needed a bone marrow transplant, Brown said.
Fire company members continue to volunteer weekends at the fire station complex to raise money in hopes of continuing Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.’s mission, Pennington said.