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Controversy continues in Bouton
By Stacie Lett
Under the supervision of two officers from the Perry Police Department, the locks at the Bouton fire station were changed last week, the seemingly final act in a long-running battle between city leaders and fire chief Karl Harris.
"We just came to the conclusion that enough was enough," said Tim Hudspeth, city council member. "Something needed to be done, so we did it."
What they did was close down the fire station and dismiss the nearly 20-member volunteer fire department.
"I was in the fire station talking with members of the media when the Perry Police Department showed up," said former fire chief Karl Harris. "They told me that we all had to get out of the fire station."
This move was just one more in the "tit-for-tat" relationship that has existed between the city and the fire department over the last several years.
In 2004, Bouton hit the national headlines when a city council meeting ended with arrests being made. The current mayor, Bob Barrow, was among those arrested.
That incident was sparked by allegations that fire department personnel were fueling personal vehicles and making unauthorized purchases of food items and cigarettes and charging them to the city account.
Although both sides were able to move on, another issue reared its head over the summer.
A city audit, which included the city's fire association, was requested by petition in 2005. The city turned in all records to the state as requested, but the fire department did not.
At an October 2005 meeting, the council approved setting an Oct. 7 deadline for the information to be turned in from the department. If all requested association records were not received by the state by that time, Harris, as well as Kelly Allis, the association's treasurer, would be suspended.
At the time, Harris believed the move was unnecessary.
"We were working with the bank to get the records the whole time," he said then. "All they had to do was talk to us and they would have known that."
Tensions seemed to subside - until now.
"When I arrived at the city council meeting I was prepared to inform the council as to how we were going to renovate the old brick city hall building to be able to use it for equipment storage," said Harris. "We had all the plans made and were getting bids on the material. I guess we weren't on the same page at all."
Instead of presenting his information, Harris received a little instead.
"I was handed a list of stipulations from the mayor and told to read them and then sign them," said Harris. "I was really surprised. I really didn't see that coming."
According to Harris, the stipulations included reducing the size of the department to 10 members, half of what it had, and limiting the number of fire vehicles the department had to three.
"I couldn't agree to having a department that wouldn't be able to offer adequate fire protection to the city and the contracted areas that we cover," said Harris. "But I told the council that I would have to discuss the stipulations with my department before I could officially respond."
Other stipulations included the presentation of either a verbal or written report on all fire/EMS activities each month, as well as what Harris considered to be a "gag order."
"One of the items on the stipulations was that I would give my report, on fire department issues, and not be allowed to speak at any other time during the meeting," Harris said. "That was just unbelievable."
Harris was prepared to take the matter before the fire department but hadn't had the opportunity when the fire department was disbanded.
"It was around 2 p.m., Tuesday (Feb. 7) that I got the call from the mayor that they were closing down the fire station," Harris said. "We were in shock. We couldn't believe that it had come to that."
According to Hudspeth, it needed to.
"This has just been going on for too long," said Hudspeth. "The council came up with those stipulations to deal with the situation that we are in. We are less than seven months into the fiscal year and the fire department is already over budget. We can't have that."
Although this is an issue that Harris contests, there were other considerations that factored into the decision, said Hudspeth.
"We took a look at what calls the fire department was responding to and many of them were not even in Bouton; they were in Woodward," Hudspeth said.
According to him, Bouton has a "mutual aid" agreement with the city of Woodward, as well as other cities in the vicinity of Bouton. A mutual aid agreement provides that if an agency puts out a call for help from surrounding departments, they will respond.
"We found that in a lot of the calls that the fire department was responding to, they were called out by Karl [Harris], not by the City of Woodward," Hudspeth said.
But Harris denies that the department responded to any unnecessary calls.
"There is some confusion because I, as well as five other members of the Bouton department, are also on the Woodward volunteer department," Harris said. "We weren't just showing up to show up."
The straw that broke the camel's back, according to Hudspeth, was the report that a threatening remark was made to Betty Tingwald, Bouton's city clerk, by Harris.
Harris, who said he was notified about the threat by media crews that were on the scene, said he knew nothing about it.
"What purpose would it serve to say something threatening to the clerk?" Harris said. "Anyone who knows me, knows that isn't my style."
Dallas County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Kevin Frederick confirmed that an incident report had been filed, but that no decision had been made as to whether charges would be filed.
According to Harris, personal squabbling aside, the bigger issue here is that Bouton no longer has fire protection.
"Not only are response times going to be increased drastically, but our I.S.O. rating is now a 10," Harris said. "Insurance rates are going to go up for people in town because of that."
An I.S.O. (Insurance Safety Office) rating is how many insurance companies figure rates for property hazard insurance.
According to Harris, each city is rated between 1 and 10. The rating is determined using factors which include equipment availability, number of fire fighters, and distance to respond. The lowest rating, a 10, is equivalent to having no fire protection. The lower the rating, the higher the premiums.
"We worked really hard and were able to get a six rating," said Harris. "Now because the Perry and Woodward departments will be covering Bouton, the rating will likely go to a 10 because of the distance for them to respond."
In a letter sent from I.S.O. to Barrow and Harris on Feb. 9 that possibility was confirmed.
Because the responding agencies are over five miles away, Bouton's classification could change.
"Properties in areas over 5-road miles are classified as a Class 10 (beyond recognized protection) and may be subject to increased fire insurance premiums," the letter stated.
According to the letter, the city has one month to respond.
And although Hudspeth maintains that the situation is a temporary one, a letter, signed by Hudspeth on behalf of the mayor, states that the Bouton Fire Department is "closed indefinitely," citing "threats by fire personnel, spreading of rumors, and basic disrespect of the Mayor and council."
"I don't know how you could see this as anything but personal," said Harris. "And the people who aren't going to have adequate fire protection are paying the price for that."
One resident and former volunteer firefighter went so far as to say she was ashamed to be a resident of Bouton.
"This is the best volunteer fire department that I have ever seen," said Betty Moorman. "Many rural communities can't find enough people to have a volunteer fire department and our mayor thinks we have too many. Can we really ever have too much protection?
"Perry and Woodward are both volunteer departments, too. Once they get to the station, they still have the travel time to get here. I hope there aren't any fires or rescue calls in Bouton."