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Fire fund brings closure to volunteer firefighters

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

On Monday, the Jonesboro City Council voted to reimburse members of its former volunteer fire department for funds raised independently by the group between 1978 and 2005, when the group was dissolved.

The act is intended to end a bitter chapter of Jonesboro's recent history and bring closure to volunteer firefighters, who felt cheated in the city's transition to county fire protection.

The council voted unanimously (councilman Bobby Wiggins was absent) to move $45,195.14 from the city's general fund into a Jonesboro Fire Rebate Fund, which will be administered by a board consisting of three former members of the volunteer fire department. The board -- composed of Ed Wise, Bobby Lester, and Willis Swint -- will have until the end of 2008 to spend the funds, at which time the board will be dissolved and any excess money will go back into the general fund.

Councilman Rick Yonce, who led the motion, said it was a "good gesture" toward the members of the volunteer fire department, whom he said were "never officially thanked" for over 50 years of providing complimentary fire-protection services to the city.

"A lot of people ... feel like they were done away with improperly," said Yonce. "We feel like this is the right thing to do. It was the dignified thing to give them some say over what they want to do with the money."

On Jan. 10, 2005, a split-council vote ultimately dissolved the city's volunteer fire department and assigned the city to the protection of the Clayton County Fire Department. Former Mayor Joy Day broke a tie between the three female members of the council (Yvette McDonald, Donna Meadows, and Linda Wenz), who supported the motion and the three male members (Wallace Norrington, Clifford Sewell, and Rick Yonce), who were adamantly against it.

Day's decision to dissolve the department divided the council and created a rift between Day supporters and advocates of the fire department, which lasted until Luther Maddox took over as mayor in January.

During Day's last term as mayor, approximately $38,000 of the money raised by the volunteer fire department was moved from a private bank account into the city's general fund, according to Jonesboro City Clerk Janice Truhan. She added that approximately $6,000 raised by the defunct department was recently moved from a different bank account into the city's coffers by Maddox.

Maddox said putting the money into a separate fund for the fire members to use is "morally ... the right thing to do."

"It's still being used for city business," said Maddox, noting that all purchases through the fund will have to be approved by the full city council. "They devoted a lot of years of service to the city ... they need to have some input."

Wise, a former member of the volunteer fire department, said the motion will close many old wounds caused by the council's 2005 decision.

"The department was jerked out from underneath us," said Wise. "We had no control over anything. We were basically tossed out of the station by force." He said the creation of the fund is "a good gesture and it will provide closure for a lot of us ... it will allow us to move on."

The first thing the Jonesboro Fire Rebate Fund will be used for is to cover the 2008 fire tax for the nearly 560 Jonesboro residents, who qualify for a homestead exemption. While the amount cannot be determined until the Clayton County Fire Department determines its next year's budget, the cost to spare Jonesboro residents the tax will be approximately $17,500.

The remainder of the money will be used to benefit the Fire House Museum and Community Center and any other charitable causes approved by the city.

"We're just basically following through with what that account was for," said Wise. "That's what the intent was, always."

Day could not be reached for comment.