Cumberland Times-News

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June 25, 2013

McKay addresses McCoole, grand jury may hear case

MCCOOLE — An investigation into the demise of the McCoole Volunteer Fire Department may soon move to the grand jury, according to Allegany County State’s Attorney Michael Twigg.

It was revealed Monday that Michael McKay, Allegany County commission president, as well as some McCoole area residents, have written letters to Twigg’s office asking for answers in regard to the financial collapse of the once-solvent fire company.

The county department of emergency services announced in April that the McCoole station, which had only one truck and four firefighters in the end, would cease to operate.

The letters written to the state’s attorney were disclosed during a town-hall style meeting at the McCoole Cornerstone Ministries church Monday, which was attended by around 60 citizens. The meeting, the second one held on the topic, was hosted by Richard DeVore, director of the department of emergency services.

The McCoole Volunteer Fire Department, which McKay acknowledged was once considered a “gem” in the area before its slow demise began during the early 2000s, ended up with nearly $1 million in debt and its fire station in foreclosure.

Nerves were raw for many who feel that the company deteriorated due to the mismanagement of the fire department’s assets under the administration of former Fire Chief Charles Pearce Jr.

Those present raised their hands to speak and were not required to give their names.

“People were asking for help for years and nobody would help them,” said a citizen.

Several residents asked why the county didn’t monitor or track any of the funding that went to the McCoole fire department.

McKay surprised many when he revealed the lack of oversight of county funding to the fire companies it supports.

“Are you saying that you would give a company $30,000 and they don’t have to answer to you on what they spend that money on?” asked a citizen.

“You are correct,” said McKay.

Many felt the absence of auditing procedures led to the financial collapse.

“I think it (the funding) should be accounted for,” said one resident.

“It’s our tax dollars,” said another citizen.

Twigg said that the issuance of indictments will be decided on by a 23-member grand jury.

“We are coming to a closure of the investigation and I’d like to present it to the grand jury,” said Twigg.

Allegations of possible wrongdoing to be examined could include the payment of $3,800 in rent by the fire house to the Hamburger Haven for which Pearce is the resident agent, the use of bingo proceeds and other fire department funds, and the purchase and selling of fire equipment.

Pearce was not present at the meeting.

Officials tried to focus the meeting on future decisions such as the creation of a substation for McCoole to be administered by the Rawlings Volunteer Fire Company, and the benefits of adopting a fire tax. However, attendees kept searching for answers on the station’s demise.

“How could the fire company be drained down like that? They don’t even have a pair of boots now,” said one citizen.

“Why was Mr. Pearce paid for it (his services)?” asked another resident. Pearce was a rare paid fire station administrator, in a predominantly volunteer field.

“We will call witnesses to see if there is concrete evidence,” said Twigg.

Those who will testify with knowledge of what transpired and what the understandings were will be critical to the case.

Twigg said the grand jury will decide if there is sufficient evidence to indict or not.

“The jury may also ask for more evidence,” said Twigg.

Twigg said he has met with some members of the community on multiple occasions in regard to the case.

DeVore told those present that he would hold as many meetings as needed to resolve the situation.

There will be another public meeting concerning the McCoole Fire Department on July 22 at 7 p.m. at the McCoole Cornerstone Ministries.

Greg Larry can be contacted at glarry@times-news.com.

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