MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

December 29, 2013

Firefighter tax fund’s oversight board praised

Muskogee County officials gave kudos to an 18-member board made up of representatives of area fire departments for uncovering and revealing questionable expenditures from dedicated funds.

Voters approved in 2005 a 0.0015 percent countywide sales tax created to better equip area fire departments and improve operations of the mostly rural, volunteer departments. The integrity of the fund, however, came into question after it was learned some firefighters had been paid wages from the dedicated fund, which is prohibited by the resolution that authorized the tax.

“What these fire chiefs and other firefighters want the people in Muskogee County to know is this is being handled correctly,” said Muskogee County District Attorney Larry Moore. “They don’t want to lose the public’s trust, and that is why they are policing themselves.”

Moore, who has 22 years experience as a volunteer firefighter, said the Fort Gibson Fire Department was blessed by the financial support from the town. But many rural fire departments within the county weren’t as fortunate.

“Sometimes they had trouble getting bunker boots and bunker gear — just the basics — and this tax approved by the voters was a godsend to these departments,” Moore said. “This board, comprised of other firemen from each fire station, are being good stewards of this tax money.”

Keefeton Fire Chief T. Speck Plunkett, who serves as chairman of the fire tax oversight board, recalled a time before the tax was levied when many rural fire departments were dirt poor. Most of them relied on bean suppers and fundraisers to provide fire protection to their districts.

“I remember back about seven years ago when we were having all those wildfires, there were firefighters I know here at Keefeton who took money out of their own pockets to keep fuel in our trucks,” Plunkett said. “Whenever a person makes that 911 call, they expect a fire truck to show up, and this tax has helped us make sure that happens.”

Muskogee County Commissioner Gene Wallace, District 1, said transparency in government is important to ensure public funds are being spent appropriately. In this case, Wallace said, it is especially important because of the public safety improvements that have been made as a result of the dedicated sales tax for area fire departments.

“I think when you compare our county with other counties in the state you will see our fire departments are so much better,” Wallace said. “This (payroll issue) is a little blip — for the most part these guys, most of them volunteers, have done a great job protecting Muskogee County residents.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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