MCCOOLE — Several residents of the McCoole area told emergency services officials Monday that they cannot move forward with plans and fire service arrangements in the district until answers are addressed following the recent closing of their financially strapped volunteer fire department.
“The community needs closure from the past before we can look to the future,” said William Ambrose, a resident whose father helped to create the McCoole Volunteer Fire Department in the late 1930s.
About 60 people filled Cornerstone Ministries Church to help shape details for future fire service in the McCoole area and to hear answers as to how their fire station ended up nearly $1 million in debt and in foreclosure.
The meeting was hosted by Dick DeVore, the director of the department of emergency services for Allegany County. Also present were area fire officials, along with Bill Valentine and Michael McKay, county commissioners.
The once-solvent McCoole Volunteer Fire Department, which McKay acknowledged as a “jewel” in the area before its slow demise, had only one fire truck and four firefighters when county officials closed it in April.
At the meeting, citizens raised a hand to speak and were not required to give their names.
“Where was the county when our fire station was being cannibalized?” asked one citizen.
Nerves were raw among McCoole residents who wanted answers for what they see as a mismanagement of the fire station’s assets during the administration of Fire Chief Charles Pearce Jr.
Allegany County State’s Attorney Michael Twigg has revealed that an investigation is continuing in the handling of the fire station’s assets.
Public records show fire station officials paid $3,800 rent to Hamburger Haven restaurant, of which Pearce is the resident agent, from 2004-2010. This was done in an apparent effort to raise money for the fire station.
Other residents complained that expensive equipment was purchased only to be sold off later.
DeVore asked that the meeting focus on the future.
Officials talked to the citizens about the creation of a McCoole substation administered by the Rawlings Volunteer Fire Department.
McCoole could have their fire district covered by Rawlings and Potomac of Westernport, with Keyser, W.Va., also responding as a mutual aid station.
DeVore, along with Wes Foor, fire chief of Rawlings, also spoke of the advantages of establishing a fire tax.
“When you have a fire tax, you have to have an annual audit by a certified public accountant,” said Foor.
Foor explained that an audit will help monitor the books and prevent the likelihood of any future foul play.
By a show of hands, the residents showed interest in a cooling off period before making any decisions on a substation or a fire tax.
With residents left pondering how it all happened, they expressed no mood for planning.
DeVore promised to have as many meetings as needed and set the next one for July 22 at 7 p.m. at the same location.
“We want to hear something from Mr. Twigg (state’s attorney). We need to hear some answers to all this,” said one citizen.
“We want a lawyer to pursue the past. The future will take care of itself,” said another resident.
Greg Larry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.