Fire district owed $20,000 by state fire organization

Wednesday, July 9, 2008 | 5:33 p.m. CDT; updated 4:06 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — With a clean budget audit for 2007, the Boone County Fire Protection District is still tying up loose ends in its bookkeeping. The fire district’s Board of Directors is now working to settle a dispute with the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts over $20,000 in unpaid services to the taxpayer-funded Fire Protection District.

The situation is further complicated by verbal agreements and Fire Chief Steve Paulsell’s close personal and financial ties to the association.

What is the Missouri Association of Fire Protectio

The association was formed in 1990 to allow Fire Protection Districts to share information and lobby state lawmakers on their behalf. Legislative topics of interest to the association include territorial agreements between municipal fire departments and fire districts as well as bond issues. According to the association’s Web site, its purpose is to assist member districts with issues ranging from rural water supply, to municipal annexation gobbling up prime sections of fire districts and alternative funding sources.

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The “handshake agreement” in 1999 stipulated that the association would be provided an office, telephone and support from the staff at fire district headquarters in exchange for $20,000 to be paid at the end of each year, board Chairman John Gordon and board member Dave Griggs said.

Gordon said there have been problems with the association paying the fire district on time “back as long as I know.” The association’s last payment to the fire district came late. It was paid in July 2007 for 2006 services.

Gordon said the association did not notify the fire district that it was moving out of district headquarters at 2201 I-70 Drive NW prior to a letter sent in July 2007. By August 2007, the association had left. The action broke a handshake agreement between the entities.

Pat Cronan, the former attorney for the association, was unavailable to be reached by telephone Wednesday.

Gordon met with the association’s president, Kenneth Schmalbeck, at the association’s annual meeting at the Tan-Tar-a Resort in Osage Beach on June 28 and 29 to discuss the disagreement.

Schmalbeck, who became president of the association in the middle of March, said it was “an amicable meeting,” but he did not have enough information to resolve the dispute.

“I’m in the process of trying to find everything out,” Schmalbeck said. “I want to make sure I have it right before I go back to them.”

Gordon said the board has tried repeatedly to arrange meetings with members of the association to reach a settlement but has been unsuccessful.

“We are trying to build bridges back with the organization,” Gordon said. “We are trying to reach a mutually agreeable settlement to a handshake agreement that started back in 1999.”

Cronan was the association’s paid attorney until he was fired in May. Schmalbeck would not give a reason for Cronan’s departure. According to previous Missourian stories, Cronan said in three board meetings between March 22 and April 19, 2007, that the association had not paid its fees because the fire district had mismanaged the association’s funds in 2005 and 2006.

In a letter to current association president Schmalbeck dated September 7, 2007, Cronan wrote, “We cannot prove that any money is missing and my general belief that we were shorted about $10,000 in 2005 isn’t good enough to justify any claim.”

Ties to the association

Meanwhile, at the last regular board meeting on June 18, Paulsell suggested the board approve the $1,500 annual dues required for membership in the association.

But at the meeting, Gordon said paying the dues before settling the disagreement with the association was “putting the cart before the horse.”

The board decided to table the vote until the next regular board meeting scheduled for July 24.

“I did not sign the check for the dues for 2008 because I feel we need to get this settled first,” Gordon said in an interview last week. “Then we will rejoin.”

At present the fire district has not been barred from training or other association events.

All new board members of fire protection districts in the state are required by statute to attend training provided by the association. New board member John Sam Williamson attended training at the annual conference in June. Paulsell gave the keynote speech at the conference.

But the board has excluded Paulsell from discussions about the dispute because of his close ties to the association. He was one of 35 founding members of the organization in 1990 and is the association’s legislative liaison. His wife, former assistant chief at the fire district, Sharon Paulsell, is now the salaried executive director of the association. Since the association left fire district headquarters, the official address listed on its Web site is Steve and Sharon Paulsell’s home at 5304 E. Tayside Circle. All association membership dues are sent to their home. `

“I was never paid a dime directly by them, nor was Sharon Curry while she was employed at the fire district, nor anyone else (in the fire district),” Paulsell said. Curry was Sharon Paulsell’s last name before she married Paulsell.

Meanwhile the fire district board continues to deliberate the best course of action.

“The board has some internal conflict and we need to resolve that,” board member Dave Griggs said. “I believe we should be members of (the association) and if there is some perceived outstanding balances, we need to discuss them and move forward.”

“My question is, ‘What is the benefit from our $1,500 dues?’” board member Shelly Dometrorch said. “The answer I got from the chief was, ‘free legal advice.’”

Dometrorch said she didn’t understand the chief’s answer because the fire board pays an attorney, Jeff Parshall, for legal advice. Cronan, the former attorney for the association, has not been replaced.

“We have been treated badly by this organization and I need to see what benefit we would receive before I would support rejoining,” Dometrorch said.

Gordon said if any organization moves into the fire district headquarters in the future, a formal written agreement will be reached first.

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