Smithville fire district bonuses may have broken law, new fire station empty: audit

Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway sharply criticized the Smithville Area Fire Protection District on Wednesday, finding personnel received excessive bonuses that may have violated state law, and that the district built a new fire station that it could not afford to staff.

Galloway gave the fire protection district a “poor” rating in an audit, the lowest score possible on her office’s scoring scale. The audit came as a result of a citizen-led petition to examine the fire protection district that covers the Northland town of more than 8,000 people.

“Citizens requested this audit after questioning the management of the finances and operations of their fire protection district, and we’ve detailed many of those concerns to give them the answers they deserve,” Galloway said in a statement.

Since 2016, Smithville voters have replaced each person on the five-member board that oversees the fire protection district. A new fire chief was appointed in March.

“This report also lays out specific recommendations and provides guidance to the board’s new leadership so they can fix the problems that plagued the district for years,” Galloway said.

Debbie Childress, president of the board for the Smithville Area Fire Protection District, said the current board was “on the road to recovery and repair.”

“The current board looks forward to moving the district into compliance before the follow-up audit,” Childress said in an email to The Star. “It has identified key areas that the District can improve upon and gave us a blueprint to move the district forward. One significant change has been increasing the board from three members to five members. This helps improve accountability and representation of the District.”

Galloway’s audit discovered that $209,072 in year-end incentive payments were paid out to full-time employees at the fire district between 2011 and 2015.

Galloway’s office said the payments appeared to be bonuses, since the district lacked documentation of additional hours worked. The Missouri Constitution prohibits bonus payments to public officers “after the service has been rendered.”

The Smithville Area Fire Protection District board responded that it stopped using the incentive payment system in 2015 and that it agreed with Galloway’s assessment that the payments were improper uses of public funds.

Galloway’s office also learned that a third fire station that cost $1.8 million opened in 2017 but has no staff working there and has minimal equipment. The fire station was paid for with general obligation bonds that were issued in 2015.

District officials could not come up with documentation to support the cost of construction for the fire station, which is located at 18315 Collins Road.

The fire protection board acknowledged that the previous board went ahead with construction of the third fire station without a plan to pay for employees to work at it.

“None of the 2015 Board members remain on the Board,” the district said in response to the audit findings. “Since that time, the district has increased the number of directors from three to five, hired a new Fire Chief and increased staffing levels.”

The audit also recommended improvements in the fire district’s procurement, bidding and employee travel policies after identifying weaknesses in those areas.

The audit’s determinations were difficult to come by for Galloway’s office. Auditors had to subpoena that information, a power that the state auditor has but rarely uses.

“Mismanagement in the fire district went so far that officials were unable to provide basic information to audit staff, making it necessary to compel cooperation to get answers,” Galloway said.

Childress said she ran for a position on the fire district board on a plank of transparency.

“The philosophy of the current Board is much more mission focused and operates in a highly functional manner to transparently serve the community,” Childress said. “We are working with the current Chief to ensure the station and the firefighters have all the equipment and tools they need to safely and effectively protect the community. We are doing our due diligence on requests made to ensure that taxpayer funds are being spent wisely.”