FEMA asks fire district to require 'quickie, surprise' audits

Saturday, August 25, 2007 | 5:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:49 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the Boone County Fire Protection District to begin requiring several “quickie, surprise” audits throughout the year following the disclosure of widespread accounting problems at the publicly funded department.

Adopted during last Thursday’s board meeting, the policy stems from a 2005 audit that was found to have several “accounting irregularities.”

“We uploaded our audit for (FEMA) to examine,” board member Dave Griggs said. “Suddenly, the government says, ‘Uh, what are you doing to correct these problems?’”

FEMA officials were not immediately available for comment. This is the first time federal officials have required the Fire Protection District to implement such a policy.

Accusations of financial mismanagement and the possible misuse of public funds have hounded the fire district since 2005. The audit from that year, which officials said was delayed months due to shoddy bookkeeping, is at the center of the controversy.

Griggs said that under the new policy, independent accountants would stop by the fire district’s headquarters randomly to check the department’s books, including the fire district’s petty cash account and credit card receipts. He estimated that accountants would visit the fire district about once a month, but that the schedule would be infrequent.

“You would check different things,” Griggs said. “Maybe this time you would look at credit card bills. Next month you might come in and balance the petty cash.”

During Thursday’s meeting, the board decided that an outside firm, instead of a fire district employee, should conduct the internal audits.

“From the public standpoint, it’s appropriate that someone outside the district does that,” Griggs said. “That’s a good business practice.”

Griggs said he would begin searching for prospective firms in the coming weeks and that an auditor should be chosen by the fire district’s Sept. 13 board meeting.

Griggs said a rough estimate of the audits’ cost could be between $300 and $500 per month.

During the meeting, the Columbia auditing firm Marberry, Miller & Bales presented its report of the fire district’s 2006 finances. Accountant Sue Miller said the district’s funds were in “overall pretty good form” and both Griggs and board chairman John Gordon praised the new audit.

“We’ve come a long way from a year to a year and a half ago,” Gordon said. During a phone interview Friday, Griggs echoed the sentiment, saying this year’s audit is welcome news just a year after a “disastrous audit,” which showed that the fire district used public money to pay for an 8-foot-tall bronze statue built outside the fire district’s Columbia headquarters in 2001.

The fire district used more than $100,000 in public money to pay for the statue and listed it as a “miscellaneous liability” on its books for three years. Then, in 2005, that money was written off and the statue is now listed as a fire district asset. Gordon has said he doesn’t know who authorized the statue to be written off the books.

Miller said the statue still shows up under the district’s assets. When Dometrorch asked Thursday why the statute was listed as an asset instead of a liability, Miller said it was because the statue was paid for with public, fire district money.

FBI officials have said an investigation into the fire district’s accounting practices is ongoing. They could not be reached for comment Saturday.

In addition to the random audits, the district also adopted a policy requiring a fire district employee to serve as grants manager. This person, Griggs said, would be FEMA’s contact with the fire district regarding financial matters and would undergo several weeks of training to learn federal accounting procedures.

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