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April 18, 2007

 

State Audit Finds Wide Variances in Fire District Spending

Audit Examined Four Fire Districts on Long Island and Two in Monroe County

A State Comptroller’s audit of six fire districts found significant disparities in the amount of money each spent on travel, inspection dinners and other administrative costs over a nearly two-year period. Auditors found that some of the districts spent significantly more for hotel and food costs for individuals attending conferences than appeared necessary.

The audit released today examined administrative and travel expenses at the Syosset (Nassau County), Manhasset-Lakeville (Nassau County), West Islip (Suffolk County), West Sayville-Oakdale (Suffolk County), Barnard (Monroe County) and Spencerport (Monroe County) Fire Districts. The fire districts were selected for the audit based on their size and because they each had drill teams. A drill team is comprised of firefighters who compete against other firefighters in different events, such as ladder climbing, water spraying and vehicle competitions. Fire districts, which are governed separately from the municipalities in which they are located, have the power to levy property taxes and borrow funds. There are approximately 865 fire districts in New York State with total revenues of about $569 million annually in 2005.

State auditors have uncovered a number of troubling details over the years regarding spending at fire districts. New laws passed in 2006 address several of these pervasive problems. For instance, the laws require fire districts to hold annual budget hearings, impose travel restrictions, establish requirements for creating capital reserve funds; and require larger fire districts to get annual independent financial audits. Fire district commissioners are also required to get management training.

As part of these reforms, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli just released a model code of ethics for fire districts. The model code helps fire districts develop their own policy, which they must adopt by June 2007, on issues such as use of property, conflicts of interest, disclosure of financial interests and holding of investments.

“Firefighters put themselves in harm’s way to provide a vital service to New Yorkers, and they deserve to have the necessary training and equipment to protect them while on the job,” DiNapoli said. “Unfortunately, our audits have found that too many fire districts are not doing a good job managing the public’s money. All those who administer taxpayer dollars, including fire district officials, must ensure that those funds are spent prudently.”

Among the findings of the audit:

  • Wide Variances in Travel Costs. Auditors found significant differences in how much each fire district spent on travel for individuals attending conferences. For instance, West Islip paid as much as $48 more each night for hotel rooms than Syosset at the same conference in July 2005. Auditors found that four of the six districts exceeded federal per-diem reimbursement rates for lodging in 73 percent of the instances reviewed and meal reimbursement rates 62 percent of the time. West Sayville-Oakdale paid as much as $343 a night for lodging in Las Vegas when the federal reimbursement rate was $106. Syosset allowed members $125 a day for food, while Manhasset-Lakeville limited meal expenses to $70 a day and Spencerport followed federal per diem guidelines.
  • Inappropriate Travel Expenses. Manhasset-Lakeville spent $8,731 for improper and personal expenses, such as $865 for airfare for guests and five instances totaling $3,102 where officials charged items on district credit cards but then were personally reimbursed for the costs. When district personnel attended conferences in California and Colorado, they extended their stay for longer than the conference lasted at taxpayer expense.
  • Monroe Fire Districts Properly Limited Travel Costs. Auditors found that Spencerport and Barnard generally did not have meal or lodging expenses that exceeded federal reimbursement rates. While these districts did not have limits for lodging expenses, they often had members share accommodations to limit costs.
  • Improper Use of Taxpayer Money. West Islip and Barnard paid $641 for adult entertainment television subscriptions and movies. Auditors noted that this was not a prudent use of public funds and could discourage recruitment of new volunteers.
  • Major Differences in Costs for Inspection Dinners. Five of the six districts spent about $409,000 in public funds for inspection dinners, including $143,000 for alcohol, gifts, entertainment and other costs. Over a two-year-period, West Islip spent $17,452 for gifts for those who attended the inspection dinners, while Manhasset-Lakeville spent $11,275 on gifts. Spencerport did not hold an annual dinner during the audit period.
  • Significant Expenses for Drill Teams. State law allows fire districts to provide funding for drill teams to help improve the performance of members in their official duties, but the district must document that it is a prudent use of public dollars, which none of the districts did. Auditors found that the four Long Island districts spent about $322,000 on drill team-related activities from January 2005 to August 2006. For example, Manhasset-Lakeville spent about $80,000 on their tractor-trailer to transport their competition equipment. In February 2006, Syosset voted to discontinue its drill team, and Barnard did not spend any money or engage in racing activities in 2006 due to a lack of interest.
  • Significant Disparities in Money Spent on Refreshments. None of the districts had policies on when it was appropriate to provide refreshments for board meetings and other events. Auditors found a wide disparity in the amount spent on refreshments. For example Syosset spent about $74,000 for 124 functions, while the Spencerport spent only $165 total.

Auditors recommended that the fire commissioners of the districts adopt policies for meal and lodging expenses that establish reasonable daily amounts, recover any inappropriate expenses that were paid, adopt policies for appropriate expenses for inspection dinners, and examine the benefit of having a competitive drill team. In responding to the audit, some fire district said they would improve their policies, while others had some disagreements with the auditors’ recommendations. Portions of their responses are included in the audit.

Click here for a copy of the audit.

Click here for the model code of ethics.

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