Fire board to take on salary issues

Wednesday, August 2, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:58 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Personnel problems at the Boone County Fire Protection District, which started last summer with complaints from volunteer firefighters and former employees and continued this summer with the discovery of bookkeeping mistakes during the 2005 audit, have done more than just increase the workload for the district’s board of directors. They have also hindered the board from addressing district salaries and exposed holes in policies related to the supervision of employees, board members said.

The board, however, is determined to be delayed no more.

At a July 24 meeting, each board member accepted responsibility for a specific issue. Chairman John Gordon will review district bylaws, Dave Griggs will investigate district finances, and Shelly Dometrorch will deal with personnel issues, including an analysis of district salaries.

This will be Dometrorch’s first opportunity to address an issue central to her spring election campaign, in which she defeated Don Farris to assume the vacated spot of longtime board member Myrtle Rapp. Dometrorch then criticized the salaries of some district employees, namely Chief Steve Paulsell and Assistant Chief Sharon Curry.

Dometrorch said she still thinks Paulsell’s $177,058 annual salary and Curry’s $93,460 salary are too high. But those salaries, she said, are not the only ones.

“There are more than just two people who are overpaid,” Dometrorch said. “We will review every salary and take into consideration job descriptions and what other districts are paying.”

Dometrorch said her analysis will consider that the district is different from others because it has Missouri Task Force 1, a bomb squad and a wildfire team. It also has jurisdiction over more land than any other fire department in the state.

To help in her salary review, Dometrorch is assembling an advisory committee that will include four members and herself. Dometrorch declined to name the people she’s considering but said the group would include three district residents and one member from outside the district.

District bylaws empower the board to set and review salaries, but no formal structure is in place. Dometrorch wants to change that by establishing baseline salaries and pay ranges to allow for raises.

“Right now there is no cap on how much someone can make, and that needs to change,” she said.

Dometrorch said all the positions, but not the people who hold them, will be considered.

“The goal isn’t to establish a salary for Steve Paulsell, but for a fire chief,” she said.

Paulsell said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he has no problem with the board’s salary review.

“It’s their obligation and well within their rights,” he said.

Dometrorch also is handling the district’s personnel issues, which most recently came to a head with the resignation of financial director Andrea Meinhart following errors found by an ongoing audit. In addition to revealing the poor state of the district’s finances under Meinhart’s control, both Griggs and Dometrorch said the audit has revealed organizational holes in employee supervision.

“Andrea was an employee,” Dometrorch said. “And employees need to be supervised.”

Griggs said in hindsight, it’s clear there should have been more supervision over Meinhart, whom district treasurer Kay Murray blamed for the financial problems.

“It was Andrea’s first audit, and no one questioned the financial reports because she was wholly qualified,” Griggs said. “Things are going to be different now; everyone will be more accountable.”

Asked whether he thinks his district’s employees need more supervision, Paulsell said it would be “inappropriate to discuss micromanagement with the Missourian.” Paulsell had no further comment.

Before Meinhart resigned July 17, she was placed on paid leave while the audit was being straightened out. The same day, Meinhart filed a grievance against Curry, citing instances of bullying and intimidation. These accusations were reminiscent of those from former employees and volunteer firefighters last summer, when Paulsell was accused of rewarding loyal employees and punishing those who opposed him.

These accusations accompanied concerns that the employees were “choosing sides” and that the previous board of Gordon, Rapp and chairman Willis Smith approved everything Paulsell presented.

The board is now faced again with investigating internal problems, and both Griggs and Dometrorch said the board is looking into all the accusations in Meinhart’s grievance. As a former internal affairs investigator with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, Dometrorch has experience in such matters and said she said she thinks the district is showing improvements.

“You can’t go in believing or disbelieving what you’re told. You just need to follow the (claims) and prove or disprove each one,” Dometrorch said. “I don’t know how these issues were handled before, but they will now be handled in a systematic, legal, professional way.”

Griggs said most of the personnel issues stem from an “us-them” division in the district. And Dometrorch said she senses tension among the employees and a lack of trust in her because she wasn’t the one many of them wanted elected.

Both Dometrorch and Griggs, however, said the board is aware of the district’s problems and is poised to fix them and establish trust.

“The board is determined to do what is right for the fire district,” Dometrorch said. “There is no evidence of personal agendas, and I get the feeling things are starting to come together.”

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