MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

December 29, 2013

SUNDAY EXTRA: Firefighter gear fund tapped for pay

Measure that set up tax account bars such use

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Expenditures from a fund designated for the support of fire departments within Muskogee County are being scrutinized after officials learned payroll checks were being drawn from the account.

The account, which is funded by a 0.0015 percent countywide sales tax approved by voters in 2005, was created to improve and equip mostly rural fire departments. The resolution authorizing the tax prohibits the use of that revenue “for the payment of wages or salaries for any firefighter.”

An 18-member oversight board discovered “by accident” in November that firefighters had drawn money from the fire tax fund to reimburse some fire departments for administrative costs. At the time of the discovery, at least two people — one is a firefighter — were drawing monthly payroll checks issued by the county to reimburse them for time spent carrying out their administrative duties.

Muskogee County District Attorney Larry Moore said the language of the resolution approved by voters clearly expresses their intent to prohibit such payments. County commissioners agreed, and approved a directive this month that bars payroll expenditures such as those that prompted the increased scrutiny.

“One of the main prohibitions from the very beginning is ‘that no such tax proceeds be used for the payment of wages or salaries for any firefighter,’” Moore said. “For us, that language is a pretty black-and-white statement, so my position is that if you are a firefighter none of this money can be used to pay your wages or salaries regardless of whether you are a volunteer firefighter or with a paid fire department.”

Voters approved the countywide sales tax at a time when many rural fire departments were barely scraping by, raising money for equipment and operations by playing hosts for bean suppers and sponsoring other fundraisers. Since collections of the tax began in April 2006, fire departments within the county have been able to buy bunker gear and new trucks and, in some instances, expand. In addition, more fire departments have been organized.

Keefeton Fire Chief T. Speck Plunkett said the payroll expenditures were discovered “by accident” while members were reviewing expenditures from the fund. Plunkett also serves as chairman of the 18-member board that oversees the use of the dedicated sales tax.

“We just happened to see those expenditures — it wasn’t considered a salary, but there were things there that a normal chief would not be compensated,” said Plunkett, who reported the board’s findings to Moore. “I would like to call it an honest mistake, but ... we don’t think this is a legal expenditure.”

County payroll records show two people regularly received payroll checks that were drawn from the fire tax fund. Since December 2008, Summit Fire Chief Greg Smith has received more than $18,000 for 1,980 hours of work after subtracting withholdings for payroll taxes. Heather Hampton, who was drawing a payroll check for work she performed for the Haskell Fire Department, has netted more than $7,700 for 866 hours of work performed.

Moore said the fact Smith was drawing a regular payroll check is more alarming because of his status as a firefighter. The situation in Haskell, Moore said, is still being reviewed because there are some administrative costs that can be reimbursed using revenue from the fire tax fund.

“You just can’t be a firefighter and do those jobs and get paid for it out of this fund,” Moore said. “This resolution does not distinguish between the type of work — it doesn’t say a firefighter cannot draw a salary for putting out a fire, it says a firefighter — and I think this is what the people of Muskogee County said when they voted for this tax — shall not be paid wages or salaries from this fund.”

Smith said he was under the impression there was a distinction between administrative and firefighting duties. He emphasized that there was no intent on his part — criminal or otherwise — to appropriate funds in a manner contrary to the resolution approved by voters in 2005.

“I guess I am just in a gray area — the policy is that it had become common practice that there was pay for administering the ... tax to make sure it is properly spent as it pertains to purchasing and such things,” Smith said. “One day I was just joking around about all the work that was involved, and I was informed by somebody in the county clerk’s office that people were getting paid for administering the tax and I was eligible to receive compensation.”

Muskogee County Clerk Dianna Cope said the payroll checks that have come under scrutiny were authorized before she was appointed in 2011 to succeed Karen Anderson. Since this particular issue arose, Cope said she has tried to track down documents authorizing the expenditures in question from the fire tax fund.

“We have looked through a folder Karen kept for the firefighters,” Cope said, acknowledging other firefighters had been compensated for administrative expenses outside the county payroll process. “But we have not been able to find anything that authorizes those payroll checks to be issued.”

Cope said had the initial payroll requests been made during her administration she would have submitted a written inquiry to the state auditor. Cope said she has been unable to find documentation of an earlier inquiry even though Moore said his discussions with Smith indicated assurances were given that the payments in question were proper.

Moore said his office is investigating the legality of the payments that have been made. The investigation, he said, has revealed the two payroll recipients cannot be county employees, and Smith cannot draw money from the fire tax fund for performing administrative duties.

A decision regarding the legality of payments already made and “whether anything criminal was done.” That decision could hinge on whether there is any documentary evidence that shows “assurances were made to him that these payments were proper.”

“We are not in the business of prosecuting people who have sought advice and have been told they can do something even when that advice may have been erroneous,” Moore said. “But from this day forward, I am telling every firefighter in the county that you cannot do this (draw wages or salaries from the fire tax fund) regardless of what the state auditor or the county clerk says.”

Moore said his decision, which he intends “to enforce for the people,” applies only to revenue from the 0.0015 percent dedicated sales tax. He said if a fire department has other funding sources, those funds may be used however the department’s leadership deems appropriate.

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