In Chesterfield, Mo., the 3 members of the Monarch Fire Protection Dist. Bd. meet twice a month to discuss district business. Some of the meetings, held in a boardroom attached to a firehouse, last little more than half an hour. For that part-time work, the board members — a surgeon, a business owner and a college teacher — have been paid a total of $13,050 so far this year. That doesn’t count the health insurance the dist. provides to each of them, bringing the board’s expected compensation this year to more than $70,000.
In St. Charles County, firetruck No. 8720 gleams in the bay of the fire station on Old Highway 94. It is one of 4 new trucks, all with seats embroidered with a union logo, bought last year by the Cottleville Fire Protection District for half a million dollars each. The district is so well-stocked with equipment that one of these new fire-engine-red trucks will sit in reserve, a role usually filled by pumpers with a decade or more under their wheels.
Local fire districts operate with virtually no oversight from the public, the state or the news media. The result: A powerful union has been able to stack and manipulate boards to call the shots acc. to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation. Among the reporters’ findings: Fire board members in the Pattonville-Bridgeton Terrace district accepted thousands of dollars in cash gifts from firefighters whose salaries they set: Board members in more than a dozen area districts pay themselves twice or even four times to attend one gathering for district business. In the Mid-County fire district, in St. Louis County, a board member regularly takes home $900 for one night’s work. The boards claim that open sessions and closed sessions held back-to-back on the same day constitute two separate meetings and two separate paychecks.
A common denominator among those districts with questionable spending appears to be the strength of the union representing the districts’ fire personnel. And none is stronger than Local 2665 of the Intl. Assn. of Fire Fighters. Post-Dispatch reporters attended more than three-dozen fire district board meetings in recent months — meetings in a range of settings, from a homey gathering around a firehouse kitchen table to a large board room with leather chairs and a long, wooden meeting table with microphones. Rarely were members of the public in attendance. At one meeting, the reporter was told she was the first outsider to attend a meeting in at least seven years.
Royce Engel, spokesman for Chesterfield Citizens for Responsible Government, said he was “totally shocked” by what the district pays for the directors’ health insurance. “Our City Council members don’t get health insurance, the mayor doesn’t get health insurance,” he said. “The problem is the public doesn’t pay enough attention to the fire protection districts.” But firefighter unions — and Local 2665, in particular — do.
Local 2665 has become especially adept at helping firefighters find sympathetic candidates and getting them elected to six-year terms. Many board members readily acknowledge they were tapped by firefighters to run for boards. Local 2665’s influence extends higher than just the grass-roots level. At the state level, the union’s lobbyist pushes firefighter concerns in Jefferson City. This year, the union successfully fought a bill that would have limited the union’s influence in elections.
The oversight of Missouri fire protection district boards is minimal. The most notable requirement is that each board’s treasurer is required by state law to file a detailed financial statement of the past fiscal year with the county clerk by April 1. The law, however, doesn’t specify any penalties if districts fail to adhere to it. So, quite often, districts don’t comply.
One accountant hired by seven districts to do their books is on three years’ probation from the State Board of Accountancy for performing fire district audits the board said he lacked the training to do.
While most districts are good about getting the audits done and reporting the findings, the law requiring them lacks penalties should anything egregious be discovered. “There’s no teeth in it, other than they’re supposed to send us the report,” said Tom Kremer, director of audits with the state auditor’s office.
On Sept. 7, officials of the Firefighters League for the Advancement of Minority Equalization, which represents about 35 black firefighters, said they had filed complaints with the Missouri Ethics Commission, the attorney general’s office, the St. Louis County police political corruption unit and county prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office regarding the financing of fire board members’ elections through what are known as flower funds, which the president of firefighters union Local 2665 has said are political “slush funds” collected from its members.
To read the whole series by Susan Weich and Elizabethe Holland, go to the Post-Dispatch web site: http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/special/firedistricts.nsf/front?OpenView&Count=2000. [St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8/22-25/04]