Monroe County commissioners are citing a climate of intimidation and loss of volunteer firefighters for ousting fire chief Matt Perry last Thursday.
“All he cared about was ambulance service,” said commissioner John Ambrose. “Fire was a second thought.”
Ambrose said commissioners gave Perry a big budget for part-time firefighters but he used very little of it, instead giving overtime hours to full-time employees.
“That’s expensive,” said Ambrose.
Commissioner George Emami said fire/EMS employees also complained that Perry created a fear-based culture within the department resulting in a drastic decline of fire volunteers, with the number of volunteers virtually being cut in half in the past two seasons.
Ambrose said the loss of volunteers has meant almost all county house fires lately end up as total losses.
“We’ll save the chimney,” deadpanned Ambrose.
Commissioners also parted ways with fire department training officer Trey Piper in the shake up.
Perry, who had served as fire/EMS chief since September 2017, was notified by county manager Jim Hedges upon arriving to work on Thursday that he could either resign or be fired. Sources within the county government said Perry intends to resign but had yet to submit his resignation by presstime on Monday. Perry also stepped down from his position of county Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director, a job he has held for a decade. Perry’s fire chief pay was about $55,000 per year and the EMA job paid about $10,000 more. Sources say the county has offered Perry two months of pay as a severance package.
Perry told the Reporter on Monday: “I can say it was a shock and I had no warning. But, when you’re an appointed official the Board can make a change whenever they want. They’ve decided to move in a different direction. I wish everyone well.”
The decision came less than 48 hours after commissioners held a closed meeting to discuss personnel on Tuesday, Nov. 19.
Perry was recently cleared of wrongdoing in an independent fire investigation report conducted by Evans-based firm Excellence Exceeded after two elderly residents died in a house fire on Strickland Loop on Aug. 17. Following the fatalities, several witnesses had privately complained to county manager Jim Hedges and a couple of commissioners that it took 14 minutes from the time of Perry’s initial arrival to pull the couple out of the fire. Both District 2 commissioner Eddie Rowland and Emami said the ensuing query into the Strickland Loop fire had nothing to do with Perry’s firing. However, Emami said after commissioners began to look more closely into Perry’s department, they learned that the chief had lost the confidence of a number of subordinates.
Perry’s exit also comes less than a month before the county is expected to debut its new fire headquarters on Juliette Road. Perry had been a major part of the design process since being promoted to chief.
In Perry’s stead, commissioners promoted longtime firefighter/paramedic Jason Lott as interim fire/EMS chief. The county has already begun a search for Perry’s replacement, and Lott, who has worked for Monroe County for more than 20 years, confirmed Monday that he has applied for the permanent job. Rowland said commissioners have not yet decided on whether to fill the EMA position with a new fire/EMS chief hire or whether to hire a separate EMA director.
With Monroe County’s fire chief position once again vacant, Rowland and Emami each said they would consider consolidating fire departments with the City of Forsyth if the move could save both sides money. Rowland said he’d had one-on-one discussions about it with city leaders but said nothing formal had ever been proposed. He added that he’d seen similar situations where a county fire department took over a city one but did not know of an instance when a city fire department took over a county one.
Ambrose said he favors contracting out the ambulance service and letting the county just handle firefighting.
Perry’s stint as a county department head will perhaps best be remembered for his witty social media posts, especially during inclement weather. Perry’s last post as EMA director came on Nov. 15 when he warned Monroe County drivers of wet conditions on local interstates that he dubbed the “I-75 and I-475 Slip-N-Slide.”
Perry is the second county department head to resign under fire since Hedges took over as county manager in October 2018. Hedges also gave longtime county zoning officer and former county manager Anita Buice the option of resigning or being fired in April 2019. It was Buice who recommended firing Perry’s predecessor Donny Mercer in June 2017 and hiring Perry several months later.