Fire department rebuilds after troubling 6-month audit

Hubert Volunteer Fire Department was put in the spotlight when Onslow County withheld quarterly funds from them pending the submission of a correct audit

By Amanda Thames
The Daily News

HUBERT, N.C. — One local fire department made some major changes after going through a six-month audit in 2016 that garnered a lot of attention.

Hubert Volunteer Fire Department was put in the spotlight both locally and with online firefighter websites when Onslow County withheld quarterly funds from them pending the submission of a correct audit, according to the department’s chief, Joseph Williams.

The department has made some major changes since then and Williams said they’ve been working to repair the damage done by the bad audit.

Putting numbers aside and focusing on the services and support volunteer fire department provides for communities is something Cori Jones remembers fondly. For Jones her appreciation for Hubert VFD is still very present seven months after they helped her family.

“My experience (with Hubert VFD) was great,” she said.

A bad rap

Although the audit situation was worked out between Onslow County and Hubert VFD, Papp said it was rough on the department for a while.

“It’s definitely gotten a lot better,” Hubert VFD Assistant Chief Andy Papp said of the department and the morale within.

Basically, the public had a negative view about the audit from stories being published, Williams said.

In previous stories by The Daily News in March and June of 2016, a statement in the unofficial audit listed $285,721.25 in “unclassified written checks” and in a later story lists $457,225 in unclassified checks and income.

The Daily News then wrote that only $5,295 was uncategorized, according to the new audit submitted by Richlands accountant William Bostic.

Williams said the biggest misinterpretation was that the previous hundreds of thousands of dollars were missing funds when they weren’t.

“The money wasn’t actually missing,” Papp said. “It was there, it just wasn’t categorized.”

They had invoices for the uncategorized funds, but without receipts, they didn’t know which categories to place the money into, Williams said.

But the damage was done and it slammed the department, making it look as if Hubert VFD couldn’t function, Williams said.

“It’s hard on the firefighters when a lot of the stuff they hear is coming from the news, and they’re afraid they’re not going to be able to do their jobs as volunteers,” Papp said.

One news outlet reported the department might be shut down, and Williams said that was never going to happen.

“It wasn’t the case whatsoever,” Papp added.

In 2016, Hubert VFD responded to 455 calls, Williams said. They serve the biggest district – 53.7 miles – and have already had more than 200 calls in 2017 so far, Williams added.

“Our service to the community never stopped,” he said. “We still serviced our community to the best it could be done.”

They have a lot of expenses, and items for a fire department aren’t cheap, he said. There’s always a crunch on budgets, always new gear needed and necessary truck updates. Many times, Williams said the department put off things they needed because they just don’t have the money.

“Now we’re just trying to get out of the bad reputation,” Williams said.

Fighting back

“We’ve tried to do as many public events as we can,” Williams said.

Whether it’s a church or school function, a business requesting a firetruck, or involves public education, Williams said Hubert VFD will sign up.

If someone calls and says their smoke alarm is beeping, a couple of firefighters will go change the battery for them, Williams said.

These events and functions are in part to let people see the firefighters and to know the department is still here and still helping their community, Papp said, and that includes dressing up as Santa during Christmas.

Jones was living in California when she fled from home with her four sons to escape from a domestic violence relationship, she said. She came to Jacksonville where she’d lived before and had friends she could stay with until she and her children got a place of their own.

At first, Jones said they had nothing.

Just around the corner from Christmas in 2016, Hubert VFD reached out to learn what her sons’ clothing sizes were and what toys they enjoyed most.

Knowing Jones didn’t have a car at the time, firefighters drove up in a firetruck, one of them dressed as Santa, loaded down with bags of toys and clothes.

Choking up, Jones said her sons were given winter clothes, coats, hats, and each received six-or-seven toys. The boys, Conner, 7, and Carter “C.J.” Bryant, 6, and Jason, 2, and Grayson Jones, 1, talked with Santa as the truck’s lights lit up the night.

Her family was also given a big turkey and side dishes for Christmas dinner.

“They really made our Christmas because we wouldn’t have had much that year,” Jones said.

The family was invited to the station where the boys climbed partway up the extended ladder and photos show all four boys sitting in the truck’s driver’s seat.

Papp invited anyone in the community to do the same, adding that if anyone has questions or hears rumors to come straight to the source and talk it out with the Hubert VFD firefighters.

“It’s what we’re there for,” Papp said.

Copyright 2017 The Daily News

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