At the foot of Signal Nob Mountain, the sign outside the Fortsmouth Volunteer Fire Company building is oddly defiant.
"No bingo! Due to county efforts to shut the department down," the sign reads.
Bingo was indeed canceled today, but the rest of the declamation gives only a partial account of what is happening in this community in Warren County 77 miles west of Washington.
The 33-member fire company is being dissolved by order of the county Board of Supervisors. As of Monday, it will be barred from putting out fires in Waterlick or anywhere else in Warren County.
The board's action follows years of acrimony between the county and the fire company and allegations--never proved--of embezzlement, election-rigging, sexual impropriety and gravel-filching.
Based on those allegations, the board on Tuesday gave the company an ultimatum: Either replace the company's elected officers or face dissolution. Today, Warren County Circuit Judge John E. Wetsel Jr. denied a request by the fire company for a temporary injunction against the county action.
"There comes a time to draw the line, and we drew the line," said board Chairman James L. McManaway (R-Shenandoah). "They've been misbehaving for some time."
For their part, fire company officials denied all the allegations against them and said they are mystified by the board's vote. They said they will not resign immediately, both because the accusations are untrue and because their names appear on the loans for some of the company's equipment. At the same time, they are seeking to work out a deal in which some officers would step down.
"We didn't know what they were accusing us of until Tuesday, and then they say they don't have to prove anything," said Shane Compton, 32, a Manassas auto mechanic and the president of the Fortsmouth Volunteer Fire Company.
County Administrator Edward Duncan and Fire Chief Richard "Dickie" Mabie, a paid employee who oversees the county's three paid and six volunteer fire companies, were drawing up contingency plans today for providing fire service to the 16 square miles normally served by the Fortsmouth company. Mabie said response times to fires in that area, where 1,200 to 1,500 people live, will remain largely unchanged.
County and fire company officials have had a long-running dispute over the company's bookkeeping practices, and this year county supervisors refused to provide funding to the company, which would have accounted for about 39 percent of its $141,000 annual budget. The remainder is covered largely by bingo revenue.
Mabie, in a report he prepared at the board's request and delivered Tuesday, alleged that the firefighters improperly overturned the results of their annual election for officers in December, holding a second election weeks later "since certain members did not like the outcome."
Compton said new elections were called with only 90 minutes' notice because "that's what the members wanted to do. And I have to do what they tell me to do."
Mabie also cited allegations of sexual activity at the company's fire station and of the use of company credit cards and funds to pay for personal cellular phone calls.
Then, of course, there is the gravel.
"There were allegations of donated gravel being used by private parties," McManaway said.
Compton said most of the accusations stem from complaints by a disgruntled ex-employee. Fire company officials also are quick to point out that none of the charges has been substantiated by police. Earlier this year, the Virginia State Police investigated some of the reports and forwarded their findings to the commonwealth's attorney. "No violations of law were found that were prosecutable," state police spokesman Lucy Caldwell said.
But McManaway said the Board of Supervisors had a lower threshold. "We don't have to prove anything," he said. Besides, he added, "we couldn't get witnesses to come forward because they were afraid."
None of this back-and-forth sits very well with Dwayne Frederick, proprietor of the Waterlick Grocery, just down the road from the fire station.
"I don't know what's going on, whether it's sour grapes from the county or what," said Frederick, a former company member. "I just hope there are no fires."