Fire Dispute Is Probed By Auditor

Office Finds Discrepancies In Financial Accounting

February 19, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

A continuing struggle between volunteer firefighters and the Department of Fire and Rescue Services has reached the Office of the County Auditor.

The Savage Volunteer Fire Company complained that a subordinate member of the department was spending its money without following procedures and in some cases failing to communicate with volunteer officials until after the money was spent.

The fire and rescue department complained that the Savage companyappeared to have no control over the money it was spending.

At issue is who is accountable for spending hundreds of thousands of tax dollars allocated to volunteer stations on a quarterly basis.

Both Savage and the fire and rescue department asked the county auditor toinvestigate. This is what he found:

* The department's bank account had not been reconciled for months.

* A $6,853.50 contracting bill was paid twice.

* No supporting documentation existed for two washers and a dryer said to cost $5,050.

* No supporting documentation existed for $41,101.72 worth of computers and related items budgeted at $23,000.

* Contracts for painting or grass cutting were issued to volunteer members of the station without proper bidding documentation, giving the appearance of a conflict of interest.

* Amounts spent on specific projects differed in many cases from the amountsincluded in the budget. Changes were often made verbally rather thanin writing. A $34,065 paving project requested in June 1989 was never done and the money was diverted to another purpose. A $145,000 sprinkler system had overruns of more than $29,000.

Douglas A. Levy, president of the Savage Volunteer Fire Company, says the problems havebeen corrected and the county ought to let Savage get on with its business.

Darl R. McBride, director of the county department, says that because of what has happened in Savage, the county must exercise greater control over the money it sends to volunteer stations.

Both say they want to ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely.

"We asked help from the auditor, because we were eager to establish what happened," Levy said. "Clearly some things could have been done better. Our procedures were good, the problem is they weren't followed. Let's not throw away a good set of rules.

"A subordinate officer was given authority to spend our funds without following our procedures or effectively communicating with this department," Levy said.

As aresult, he said, the company often didn't find out about its financial commitments until after bills were received. "This was a management disaster that never should have been permitted," Levy said.

"We agree that all payments for funds for capital projects should indicate the projects for which they are intended," Levy said. One complication leading to cost overruns of the sprinklers, he said, was that contractors were receiving one set of instructions from the county and another from the Savage volunteers.

As for the $6,800 overpayment, Levy said the Savage fire company notified the contractor as soon as the error was detected, but a dispute remains over past payments.

Levy said McBride has done a great deal to help lessen tensions between volunteers and career firefighters since his appointment last March, including making a change in the staff at the Savage station.

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