Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts accuses fire district of financial mismanagement

Monday, April 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:10 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Boone County Fire Protection District Board member John Gordon, Sr. listens as a motion concerning the hiring of a consultant is discussed at an open meeting on Aug. 11, 2005, in Columbia after his own motion on the topic was dropped.

The Boone County Fire Protection District board is once again grappling with a question of financial mismanagement, and this time the allegation is coming from an old friend and neighbor, the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts.

Pat Cronan, the association’s lawyer, claims that some of its funds, which the Fire Protection District handles, may not have been deposited into the association’s account. And while he hasn’t provided specifics about how much money is involved and when it went missing, he is blaming Andrea Meinhart, the fire district’s former financial director.

The fire district has already accused Meinhart, in July 2006, of stealing $6,000 in petty cash and asked Columbia police to investigate. Meinhart was put on leave after the accounting firm Marberry, Miller and Bales told the board that irregularities had been found in the financial records and fired less than a month later.

The association has been housed at the fire district headquarters since the fire district moved to its new facility in 1999 and 2000.

The accusation was made at Wednesday night’s fire board meeting, and it was the second time in two months that Cronan — who has not had a prominent role in the fire district’s recent troubles — presented potential controversies to the board. At the board’s March 21 meeting, discussion centered on an article by Cronan that had appeared in the association’s March 5 newsletter questioning the legality of chairman John Gordon’s serving on the board because of the retirement money that he receives from the state.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Cronan brought up the question of missing funds as he explained why the association has not paid the $20,000 it owes the fire district from 2006 for rent and other fees. He said the association pays them the yearly fee with the expectation of certain services — the use of space at the fire district, some administrative work and bookkeeping. With the bookkeeping services in question, he said the association would not pay.

Cronan said the mismanagement occurred during Meinhart’s tenure, in 2005 and late 2006, and he accused Gordon of making problems worse by initially protecting Meinhart. He pointed to a letter from the fire district’s auditor, Sue Marberry, that accompanied her 2005 audit, in which Marberry said the fire district’s finances were worse off because a board member had been protecting Meinhart, allowing her to continue working. He also accused Gordon of cutting that section from the auditor’s letter to hide the protection and avoid reproach.

“If John Gordon hadn’t been protecting this woman, we’d be in a much better position,” Cronan said.

Gordon said Friday that the accusation was unfounded.

“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Gordon said.

He said that he did not even know that Meinhart was handling the association’s funds. “What Andrea Meinhart did with the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts — I don’t understand that relationship, because I was not aware that Andrea Meinhart was keeping the books for that,” Gordon said. “I thought their executive director was.”

The association’s executive director is Sharon Curry, a former assistant fire chief with the fire district. Curry was the executive director before quitting the fire district Feb. 9 in a settlement over a complaint she filed against the board. Cronan said the association hired her to continue working as the executive director.

Solidifying an agreement

Since the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts was created in 1991, the two have operated together via an informal agreement. Board member Shelly Dometrorch said Friday that she brought up the association at Wednesday’s meeting because she didn’t understand its relationship with the fire district.

“We’d discussed on and off about it, and none of us understood the relationship,” she said.

When the board was told that the association paid $20,000 per year and expected certain services, but that those things were not made explicit in writing, board members decided something needed to be done.

Dometrorch was the most decisive of the three-member board, which includes Gordon and Dave Griggs. She questioned Fire Chief Steve Paulsell on the benefits of the relationship, who said that aside from the money, the benefits are in know-how and recognition.

“For years the Boone County Fire Protection District has been recognized as a fairly solid authority,” he said. He said the fire district has become the go-to place for help and advice for other fire districts, so its proximity to the association’s headquarters has been convenient.

Dometrorch raised the question of whether the district could be sued over the association’s mismanaged funds. She also asked Cronan why the missing funds were just now being brought to the board’s attention.

“I have a concern that that’s the first I’d heard of it, and throughout all our financial problems we’ve discovered over the past year we’ve never been told that,” she said.

Finally she said she didn’t think the benefits of the fire district’s relationship with the association were worth the trouble. She moved that the association vacate the building by Aug. 1.

“My preference is that they not be in our building and use our staff anymore,” she said. “I believe that that is definitely in the best interest of the fire district. We don’t have much in the way of staff and they’re really busy the way it is.”

Griggs proposed a compromise, asking that the association come up with a proposal for a formal cooperative agreement and pay back the $20,000 by May 1. His motion passed.

The meeting was a show of strength from a board of directors that has sought to sort out an organization awash in controversy. Accusations of sexual harassment, financial mismanagement and possible misuse of public funds and more have plagued the district for nearly two years, since July 2005.

Most recently, the release of the fire district’s 2005 audit and a separate audit of the first half of 2006 were delayed six months because the books were so poorly kept, according to the fire district’s former treasurer, Kay Murray.

The district blames Meinhart for the bookkeeping mess.

Meinhart has never spoken to the media about the allegations. But in a grievance letter against the district, which was widely circulated to the media, she alleged that when she voiced concerns about errors and inconsistencies in the financial records, Paulsell and Curry responded with verbal abuse.

Gordon, who has said straightening out the institution’s finances is his priority, was adamant that yet another issue not be allowed to slip by until it’s untenable.

“We need a written agreement of what the expectations would be of both parties. And we have no agreement,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a correct way of doing business when we are using taxpayer money. … We cannot conduct business when there’s $20,000 (outstanding).”

Missing funds

Despite Cronan’s claims of mishandled funds, he said the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts has not done any sort of substantive analysis of its financial records to determine how much money, if any, is missing.

“It hasn’t been my job until Wednesday,” he said Friday.

Cronan said that in 2005 the association’s checks started bouncing. But he said membership hadn’t dropped significantly enough to explain the lower income.

Cronan said the association is waiting to receive fire district audits from 2005 and 2006 and an association audit from 2006 before it can determine whether or not it is actually missing funds.

He said the association’s money is kept separate from the fire district’s. However, the fire district deposits the money for the association, and the two share a bookkeeper, currently Doug Harris.

“We’re in the process of getting those things separated ... and taking it elsewhere,” Cronan said.

The fire district board said that it had a forensic audit of its expenses done for 2005 and the first half of 2006, so any extra deposits would have already been caught.

Either way, Gordon said that the relationship was problematic, and that he’d like to see the finances fully separated.

“I think they ought to have their own bookkeeper,” he said. “If there’s been commingling of money, that’s a terrible thing to have happen. There hasn’t been enough checks and balances, and those are things we’re cleaning up as we move through the organization.”

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