COLUMBIA - The Boone County Fire Protection District board of directors has discovered that about $37,800 was erroneously paid to Fire Chief Steve Paulsell in 2004. The final draft of Paulsell's contract, dated March 25, 2005, reflected a salary matching his erroneous 2004 salary, and it's been the basis for his pay ever since.
In December 2007, the then-three-member board of John Gordon, Dave Griggs, and Shelly Dometrorch personally delivered a letter to Paulsell that told him his contract would no longer be recognized. That move came after St. Louis attorney Robert J. Krehbiel was contracted to review Paulsell's contract in early 2007.
Jan. 1, 1994 — Fire Chief Steve Paulsell's contract signed by board president Willis Smith. Salary equals $75,582.
April 2, 2004 — Past board claims to have voted on Paulsell's salary. Board minutes show no evidence of this happening.
October 2004 — Draft of contract first written with salary at $153,435.14. That figure is crossed out and replaced with $160,905.21 handwritten above.
December 2004 — Second draft of new contract with $160,905.21 figure in type. Paulsell is paid $22,304 in last pay period of 2004, raising 2004 total to $177,058.49.
March 24, 2005 — Paulsell's contract signed by board president Willis Smith. Salary figure equals $177,058.44.
December 2005 — Paulsell recommends the freezing of executive salaries in board meeting.
Oct. 22, 2007 — Salary Review Committee formed, headed by board member Shelly Dometrorch.
April 16, 2008 — Bob Scribner, paid consultant for Salary Review Committee, presents recommendations in a regular board meeting.
July 23, 2008 — Board votes to standardize pay scales, with the exception of Paulsell's.
Dometrorch said Krehbiel spent several months looking through the contract, board minutes and other documentation. Krehbiel determined it was not an enforceable contract, in part because it had not been properly voted on by the previous board.
However, the Fire Protection District has operated under the contract to date. The board has delayed acting on Paulsell's salary until further consultation with Krehbiel out of fear that Paulsell might sue the fire district, Gordon said. The board standardized all fire district salaries except Paulsell's in July after accepting salary ranges from a committee, headed by Dometrorch, that was appointed to review district pay rates.
The board's effort to understand how Paulsell's salary reached $177,058 is the latest effort to get the fire district's financial house in order. Gordon said it is a sensitive time, and the board is trying to resolve the situation in a way that is satisfactory to the board, the chief and the public.
"This has been a huge mess that none of the five board members created. It is really frustrating," Gordon said. "It is like trying to unravel a ball of twine with many different strands. Every time we unravel something, we find it is connected to something else."
Dometrorch said: "(The previous board) said they voted on the changes of his contract in April 2004, but it wasn't signed until March of 2005. Had it been signed back when it was supposed to have been, the contract wouldn't have been based on his inflated salary."
Griggs, who is also board treasurer, was given the task of figuring out what happened. Griggs and fire district staff spent hours poring over payroll documents and other material provided by Paulsell. On July 23, Griggs presented his report at a closed meeting with the board, Paulsell and his personal attorney, Tom Harrison.
Griggs was reluctant to discuss the details with the Missourian before all aspects have been resolved.
"When that happens, there will be a statement issued, and I think it will answer your questions," Griggs said.
Here's what Gordon and Dometrorch say happened: Paulsell was paid $139,224 in 2003 and was scheduled to make the same amount in 2004. Fire district payroll records indicate that he was actually paid $177,058 during 2004.
"There is nothing to indicate his pay should be that high," Dometrorch said.
Based on Griggs' findings, Gordon and Dometrorch said, the board discovered in a payroll transaction record an extra $22,304 paid to Paulsell from Columbia EDP Center Inc., the fire district's payroll company, in the last pay period of December 2004. That's in addition to $15,500 paid to Paulsell in 2004 that the board has still not been able to explain.
"It was just an amazing screw-up," Griggs said. "It almost makes sense when you put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, but most of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were broken at the same time."
Gordon pointed out one specific complication.
"If he was paid more than what he was supposed to be paid, the fire district also paid an extra 31 percent into his pension and deferred compensation plan," he said.
Paulsell receives two benefits packages based on a percentage of his yearly pay. He is entitled to 21 percent of his salary for a pension plan given to all paid employees based on years of service. Paulsell's contract also entitles him to receive a 10 percent deferred compensation plan. The fire district also pays what Gordon estimates at over $400 per month to cover the health insurance plan for Paulsell and his wife, Sharon.
As a next step, the board will meet with the fire chief and "come to an agreement (with) what's going to go on," Griggs said.
No meeting has been scheduled to resolve what the board acknowledges is a problem. But, Griggs said, "it should have happened about four months ago."
Gordon said he wants Paulsell to validate Griggs' findings before he makes a decision. "He has seen Griggs' report, he participated in furnishing documentation, but I need to hear the fire chief say, ‘Yes, I believe what Dave has found is correct,' or ‘I can offer a different explanation,' " Gordon said.
Gordon said Paulsell has not been offered the opportunity to say what he believes happened.
Attempts to reach Paulsell for an interview were diverted to Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp, who said he would take questions to the fire chief. No response was received.
"The chief understands there were some mistakes made, and he is willing to do whatever is mutually agreed upon to do," Griggs said. "Obviously, he hasn't thrown up his hands and walked out and screamed and raised a bunch of trouble. So, I think he has really done the right thing, personally."