COLUMBIA — In a tearful goodbye, Boone County Fire Protection District Fire Chief Steve Paulsell announced his retirement Tuesday at a news conference in front of the Fire Protection District headquarters. Paulsell, who has served with the fire district for 38 years, called his retirement “forced,” and said it was not his desire to leave.
Although his retirement is effective Jan. 1, board member Dave Griggs said Paulsell will not be involved with fire district activities starting Tuesday.
The move signals the end of a long-standing controversy over Paulsell’s salary and contract, which have been called into question by board members in recent months. While looking into Paulsell’s salary, board member Shelly Dometrorch discovered that he was erroneously paid about $37,800 extra in 2004. That figure, without explanation, was drafted into his contract, which set his pay at $177,058.
"The allegation and implication that I knowingly or intentionally took unearned funds from the fire district is 100 percent false," Paulsell said Tuesday.
He dismissed those controversies at the news conference, saying they have been “based on personal agendas, retaliation and power struggles.” He also attacked the board of directors for allegedly spending “well over $100,000” on attorneys and consultants to resolve the matter.
“With 13 years aggregate experience on the board, and with no actual fire experience, the majority of these board members have chosen to ignore my advice and counsel on many critical issues,” Paulsell said.
“I learned on Nov. 14, while I was out of town, that the board had made a settlement offer to me in return for my resignation,”he said.
Paulsell said the board forced him to make a rushed decision the night of Nov. 21.
"After 38 years of dedicated service, I would have expected — and I deserved —better," he said.
Paulsell said he offered to take a pay cut to stay on as fire chief.
The board standardized all fire district salaries except Paulsell’s in July after accepting revised salary ranges from a committee appointed to review district pay rates. The chief was making $25,000 more than the recommended $152,991 top salary for his post.
“I offered several times … to reduce my salary to match the board’s recently approved salary matrix,” Pausell said Tuesday. “The board rejected that offer.”
He said the board has damaged the fire district by forcing his retirement.
“Terrible wrongs have been committed against this organization,” he said. “Lies have been told, lives have been damaged, reputations have been tarnished.”
The fire district board accepted Paulsell's retirement, according to a news release from the fire district. Board chairman John Gordon said the board had complete confidence in its staff and volunteers "to continue serving the citizens of the district."
Gordon said the board plans to appoint an interim chief within the next week.
Board member John Sam Williamson, who spoke after Paulsell, said it was “a sad day for the Boone County Fire Protection District and for me personally.”
“Under his leadership as chief, this department has grown from a small rural fire department to become the premier fire district in Missouri,” Williamson said.
Williamson, the only current board member present at the news conference, said it was the hardest thing he has ever had to deal with — short of someone dying.
Paulsell closed his speech by praising fire district volunteers and said that while he is no longer able to participate in fire district activities, he will support the volunteers.
“But I will be in the crowd, cheering you on, proud of all you are doing and have done to serve those who need you,” he said. “You are my heroes."