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Defunct department's personnel dispose of equipment

By James Draper, Kilgore News Herald, Texas
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 30--With the ongoing dissolution of Liberty City Fire & Rescue, the start-up department's assets and debts are being divvied up.

The operation's primary fire engine has reportedly been sold to one of its board members, and he currently employs the organization's former fire chief. A second fire engine was delivered on Monday to one of the folding agency's primary contributors -- apparently unusable, the truck is worth a fraction of the local philanthropist's funding for the department.

Meanwhile, much of LCFR's equipment, records and other inventory is locked-down in the former fire station at 627 West Point Rd. The property owner is demanding $8,000 in unpaid rent before he'll relinquish the stock.

At least one of the department's board members says the closing of the operation comes as a surprise. Another is working with the former chief -- who reportedly resigned in mid-March -- to dispose of the group's assets amid conflict information about the closing of the department.

The doors are locked, chained from the inside, at Liberty City Fire & Rescue's station near Liberty City. The power and phone service have been cut off, and the group's Facebook page has been deactivated.

Officially established in November 2012, the department's organizers aimed to create a 24/7 operation of paid firefighters funded through grants and claims on local homeowners' insurance following fires. Liberty City's second firefighting operation (Sabine Volunteer Fire Department provides emergency services for the area) drew seed money from multiple contributors.

Leasing a shell building on West Point Road, LCFR personnel renovated the facility and steadily purchased and acquired inventory for the operation including bunker gear, extraction equipment and at least four vehicles including two fire engines, an ambulance and a 2.5 ton truck contributed by the Texas Forest Service.

After spearheading the start-up for about a year-and a-half, C.W. Crutcher says he resigned from his post as fire chief in March.

"I've been resigned for a while now. It's been almost a month," Crutcher said Monday, citing time constraints from another job as well as the hard-slog of creating the department, which was never dispatched to a fire. "I got a good job ... My goal when they asked me to get involved was to better our community. I don't wanna play politics."

Crutcher maintains he is no longer a part of the department nor does he have a role in the disposition of its inventory.

"I don't have any responsibility with it. I don't have a clue on how that gets disposed of," he said. "I don't know what they're doing because I'm not involved with it. I resigned and moved on."

As of July 1st, 2014: a new strategy to avoid RMDs

Crutcher declined to identify his new place of work and would not speak further about LCFR's closing. His profile at LinkedIn. com -- which notes he worked as chief at LCFR from November 2012 through April 2014 -- lists him as an instructor at Kilgore College Fire Academy (from Sept. 2013 to the present) and Fire in Texas (for the same period).

Fire in Texas Fire/EMS Training Academy, based at 1334 Sharon Lane in Sulphur Springs, is coordinated and owned by Ronnie Gothard, who also works as director of the KC Fire Academy and previously described himself as a technical advisor on LCFR's board of directors.

As of Tuesday, the better of the two fire engines acquired by Liberty City Fire & Rescue was on site at the drill field of Gothard's academy, also in Sulphur Springs.

Gothard could not be reached for comment at Fire In Texas Tuesday -- he is reportedly out of the office in Kilgore through Friday. An employee at Fire In Texas said Crutcher was out of the office Tuesday.

Though Crutcher is officially resigned, Vickie Fleming (wife of LCFR board member and contributor Eddie Fleming) said the former chief is working with her husband to sell various pieces of equipment and pay outstanding bills.

"He has resigned so he is no longer handling anything at this point," she said. The second truck was sold to Gothard, Fleming explained, to pay off the department's lingering utility bills -- electricity, phone, water, etc. "It paid off the bills. There's paperwork showing what was sold on that truck and what was raised on that truck.

Fleming did not have the paperwork on hand Monday and did not detail the sale price but said the proceeds coincide with the billables.

"(Crutcher) did handle that. What money that came in, it was spent on specific items."

Fleming confirmed LCFR "is in the process of being dissolved" but said she could not comment on the department's finances -- citing the lockdown at the fire station -- nor does she have an inventory of the equipment left inside.

"The department has no money. It couldn't sustain itself because it was never able to be dispatched on calls, so it was never able to get off the ground," she explained. "We also cannot get access to anything that is in the building at this point ... Rent has not been caught up on the building. Everything that is in the building (the property owner) has taken possession of until the rent is paid."

Antonio Rodriguez owns the facility at 627 West Point Rd.

According to Rodriguez, he let the start-up operation use the facility rent-free for the first six months, beginning in November 2012. For the next six months, Rodriguez says he discounted the $12,000 rent to $9,000, paid in full.

As of July 1st, 2014: a new strategy to avoid RMDs

Following that period, he explained, there's been no rent payments the past four months: the group owes $8,000, $2,000 per month for four months ending Saturday, May 3.

"It was just one of those deals -- I was trying to be nice to them," Rodriguez said Monday. He took action, locking down the building, when he saw the group was closing shop in recent weeks. "They started pulling trucks out and I said, 'Uh-oh, I gotta do something before I get left behind.

"What they told me, as soon as they sold the truck they were going to come out here and pay me my rent ... The chief came out here (Sunday) morning and left me the key. Everybody had a key."

Until the rent is paid, the building stays closed -- the front doors are chained and a piece of wood is in place for added security; Rodriguez changed the locks on the back door. He's leaving the current items inside as-is.

"I don't want to touch somebody else's stuff unless I'm ready for it," he said. May 3 starts a 30-day clock: if the bill is settled, Rodriguez says he'll allow LCFR personnel to remove their remaining inventory. "If I don't get the money after 30 days ... I'm just going to have a garage sale.

"That stuff in there, it's got to be worth something for whoever knows what it is."

The Texas Forest Service's truck -- repainted and emblazoned with LCFR logos -- was sitting beside the building Monday.

According to Terry Richardson, Marshall-based resource specialist for the state agency, Crutcher requested through the agency's fire service coordinator to have TFS personnel collect the vehicle.

"It will be picked up in the morning" on Wednesday, Richardson confirmed.

According to Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano, his office has conducted an inquiry to determine the disposition of the equipment.

For example, he said, the Texas Forest Service contacted county officials to assist in the return of the agency's vehicle.

"They came to the county," Cerliano said. "We're just trying to make an inquiry at this point to determine what has occurred."

Regarding the fire engines, "We know the location of those two vehicles," Cerliano confirmed. "One was apparently sold: we've identified who it was sold to (Gothard), we haven't determined the sale price."

Gothard has offered to provide the title to the vehicle to verify the purchase, Cerliano noted. GCSO has also contacted Rodriguez about the remaining equipment -- whether or not the inventory in the fire station can be sold depends on the lease agreement, Cerliano said.

As of July 1st, 2014: a new strategy to avoid RMDs

As of press time, the News Herald was unable to ascertain the location of LCFR's ambulance.

While the department's primary engine was reportedly sold to Gothard and transported to Sulphur Springs, its second, decrepit fire truck was delivered by Crutcher to LCFR contributor Mike Clements Monday morning.

According to records at publicsurplus.com, LCFR personnel acquired that 1992 Spartan Pumper Fire Apparatus from the City of Chicago for $3,550 in "Poor" condition following an eight-day online auction in November 2012 and drove it from Illinois to Liberty City.

Listed for sale on various Web sites earlier this year, LCFR failed to sell the vehicle at the asking price -- numerous bids on eBay. com did not meet the department's $7,500 reserve, and a subsequent auction closed early with no bids, the item listed as "no longer available."

"If anybody bought it, it would have to be sight-unseen," according to Gary Shaver, General Counsel for Clements' Energy Weldfab in White Oak. "It was loosely held together by the rust."

Following Crutcher's delivery, Clements donated the truck to Sabine VFD. Thankful for the donation, SVFD Chief Richard Sisk is dismayed at the condition of the vehicle, now housed at his station.

"It's in poor condition. The chassis is rusted out all the way around it. The interior of the vehicle's pretty damaged. The pump system won't pass a pump test. It's actually been dismantled," he said. "It's got some rear damage where it's been backed into something."

As it is, the truck is unusable, Sisk said.

"I'm working with Mr. Clements, and we're going to see if there's a fire department that has the funds to fix the pump," he explained. Lacking that, "We may just roll it across the scales and salvage it. We're not real sure at this point, we're just looking around. There might be someone willing to buy it to just have an old fire truck."

Though LCFR's records are currently inaccessible, according to Shaver his employer was one of the largest contributors toward establishing the organization -- in addition to giving cash in excess of $25,000, Clements purchased a fire engine for the department.

That truck is now in Sulphur Springs at Gothard's facility, Shaver added.

In the beginning, "He had asked them, if they went out of business to return the assets to him so he could distribute them to qualifying 501(c)3s that needed the assistance, other fire departments probably," Shaver explained. Hearing of the department's looming demise, the attorney says he sent a letter to the department, "If you see that it's not going to work out, please return the assets to us so we can distribute them to somebody on behalf of Liberty City. So, yesterday we got the (Spartan) truck. We also asked for the return of the bunker gear that Mike had bought for (LCFR), but we didn't get that.

"Ultimately, Mr. Clements' goal was just to get it to someone who needed firefighting equipment. Of course, being from this area, he did have some concerns about hoping that it ended up with somebody in this area."

Shaver estimates the value of the Spartan apparatus at less than 10 percent of Clements' total contribution. There was one out-ofdate set of bunker gear in the vehicle.

"That's all I know was returned, but it's worthless -- it can't be used," he said. "I will tell you C.W. said he was going to contact three members of the Liberty City Fire & Rescue that had taken home sets and ask it to be returned to us and distributed ... We're not going to chase those guys down. It's not their gear, it's the LCFR's gear."

Donating the Spartan apparatus to SVFD, Clements and Energy Weldfab are out of the equation, Shaver said.

"The law is that they're supposed to pay their bills and then distribute their assets to qualified 501(c)3 entities. We were just trying to help in that process."

According to Crutcher, he resigned in March and the LCFR board followed suit -- both details came as a surprise to LCFR board member Chris Cline Monday afternoon.

"You tell me he's resigned, that's news to me. I haven't talked to any of the other board members," Cline said, noting the group's by-laws require they meet once per year. He was unable to recall the last time the full board gathered.

Likewise, Cline said he was unaware any board members had resigned.

"That's news to me," he said. "I don't have any more (information) about it ... I don't have any comment at this time because I don't have anything to comment on."

LCFR board member Dick Headen could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Noting the accessible equipment is being sold to pay the bills, Vicki Fleming lamented the operation's closing -- facing an "uphill battle" in Liberty City, she said, Crutcher and her husband mutually agreed to close it down.

"The decision was just made to go ahead and dissolve. If it can't be dispatched, then what can a fire department do?" Fleming said. The assets -- vehicles and other equipment -- are being dealt with. "We're in the process of working with some of the other contributors to try and get that stuff squared away."

Unable to secure a dispatch relationship with a nearby department, it could not hold on with limited, dwindling funding, she added.

"It just seemed like we didn't have enough pull ... It's a small community," Fleming said, frustrated the start-up drew opposition. "I don't understand where the conflict and the brick walls kept being put up.

"Why is it so hard to think we could have two fire departments to protect our homes, wrecks, our people? That's what I don't understand. Sabine (VFD) felt threatened that we were trying to take over them -- we wanted to work with them."

At Sabine VFD, where a volunteer was scraping the Liberty City Fire & Rescue lettering off the Spartan apparatus Monday, the department's chief says he's eager to acquire the gear inside the former LCFR fire station if possible.

"It was already paid for by members of the community to be put into service and help protect the community it's in already," Sisk said. "... It's just puts another bad taste in the citizens' mouths that have been around here for a long time. It's just really unfortunate."

___

(c)2014 the Kilgore News Herald (Kilgore, Texas)

Visit the Kilgore News Herald (Kilgore, Texas) at www.kilgorenewsherald.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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As of July 1st, 2014: a new strategy to avoid RMDs