SC FD's future in question after withdrawal of merger offer

The Wagener Fire Department's strained relationship with town officials culminated in the suspensions of its chief and assistant chief in November


Dede Biles
Aiken Standard, S.C.

WAGENER, S.C. — Merging with the New Holland Volunteer Fire Department isn't an option for the embattled Wagener Fire Department anymore.

New Holland VFD has withdrawn its consolidation proposal, New Holland VFD Chief Dennis Jackson told the Aiken Standard late Wednesday afternoon.

The New Holland Volunteer Fire Department has withdrawn an offer to merge with the embattled Wagener Fire Department, leaving the latter department's future uncertain.
The New Holland Volunteer Fire Department has withdrawn an offer to merge with the embattled Wagener Fire Department, leaving the latter department's future uncertain. (Photo/The Town of Wagener)

"It is no longer on the table," he said. "We hate to pull out, but it (the proposal) just sat idle for too long. The offer was made right at 60 days ago."

New Holland VFD's board of directors, of which Jackson is a member, made the decision to withdraw the proposal during a meeting Tuesday night.

At a special meeting of the Wagener Town Council, which also was held Tuesday evening, the panel unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that would have authorized the consolidation.

Wagener Mayor Mike Miller told the Aiken Standard that he, Randy Kitchings, George Smith and Ann Widener voted for the merger.

One Town Council member, Andrew O'Byrne, was absent.

When the Aiken Standard contacted Miller late Wednesday afternoon about New Holland's decision to remove its consolidation offer from the table, he said, "It's a big disappointment."

Last November, the Town of Wagener announced that Wagener Fire Department Chief Mark Redd and Assistant Chief George Day had been suspended.

According to the announcement, "inappropriate use of social media" and "insufficient bookkeeping documentation regarding the finances of the Wagener Fire Department" were the reasons for the suspensions.

Also mentioned were "considerable difficulties between the fire department and the Town Council and mayor in the past few years."

During a sit-in at the Wagener Fire Department soon after the suspensions, Day denied that he and Redd had mishandled any of the department's funds.

Day also said he couldn't think of any misuse of social media that was serious enough to warrant a suspension.

Gerald Taylor is serving as the interim chief of the Wagener Fire Department, which traditionally has been staffed by volunteers.

Miller believes the department will be able to carry on providing services without the merger.

"We've got 10 (firefighters) on the roster, and we've got six active ones," he said. "And we've got a paramedic that is doing first responder work."

Miller added that some of the firefighters who left after Redd and Day's suspensions have returned.

Miller and Wagener Town Council also have received a proposal from the recently formed Wagener Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Inc., or WVFDR.

WVFDR has offered to provide fire and rescue services in the existing Wagener fire service area if the town agrees to transfer the Wagener Fire Department's "fire suppression and rescue equipment and assets" to WVFDR.

The new nonprofit corporation also wants to either lease the Wagener Fire Department building or have the Town of Wagener convey the "title of the land (where that structure is located) and improvements" to WVFDR.

Miller said Wednesday that he is not interested in pursuing that proposal.

On Tuesday evening, a group of roughly 20 people attended Aiken County Council's meeting in Aiken to show their support for WVFDR.

Some of group's members and WVFDR President Logan Musser spoke during the meeting's public comment period and at an earlier meeting of County Council's Judicial and Public Safety Committee.

County Council sets the boundaries for fire protection service areas. The county also enters into contracts with the various volunteer fire departments to provide service to county residents.

The Wagener Fire Department has one of those contracts.

Because of County Council's involvement with boundaries and contracts, it has a stake in the Wagener Fire Department's future.

Following the suspensions of Redd and Day, their backers and those associated with WVFDR have criticized Miller and Wagener Town Council's handling of Wagener Fire Department matters and funds.

County Council and the panel's Judiciary and Public Safety Committee heard many of those complaints Tuesday.

"All these claims they are making are without merit, period," Miller said Wednesday of his and Wagener Town Council's detractors. "My advice is don't believe everything you hear."

Last December, County Council approved the first reading of an ordinance that would have revised the fire protection service area boundaries for New Holland VFD and the Wagener Fire Department.

The revision would have set the stage for a merger, but that now is moot.

No second reading of the ordinance had been scheduled prior to New Holland VFD's decision to withdraw its consolidation proposal.

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(c)2021 the Aiken Standard (Aiken, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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