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Lincoln County Volunteer Fire Departments have new audit rules

A new rule passed by the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors will allow volunteer fire departments to conduct annual financial reviews in-house, but will bring down swift penalties for failures to report.

Lincoln County Emergency Management Director and County Fire Coordinator Clifford Galey on Monday presented supervisors with the signed contracts necessary for all eight VFDs to receive their yearly tax disbursement, the first such documents prepared after supervisors in February passed the new policy on a 4-1 vote. The rule ends a two-year practice of requiring outside reviews that were costing departments around $500 each, but mandates any department that misses review deadlines or fails to turn in necessary financial information be required to undergo an outside audit at its own expense or risk losing county funding.

“It’s checks and balances for all of us,” Galey said. “If they don’t follow the rules and they have to have an audit, it’s probably going to cost around $2,000, so there’s some incentive there.”

Supervisors passed the new ordinance on Feb. 5 after learning accountant Barry Shedd was unable to complete his audit of the Heucks Retreat Volunteer Fire Department because some documentation was missing. Shedd stopped work on the audit and returned the department’s books back to the county.

Galey said he investigated Heucks Retreat and completed the review, and supervisors voted to accept his findings once all the figures were justified — but not before amending their procedures to stiffen the departments’ audit requirements.

The confusion seems to have stemmed from the way Heucks Retreat manages its bank accounts. Galey said Heucks Retreat and several other VFDs keep two accounts — one for public funding paid through the county’s tax millage and state insurance rebates, which is subject to review, and another for private money acquired through donations and fundraisers.

The private money is the department’s business, and neither Galey nor supervisors have authority over it, though District 3 Supervisor Nolan Earl Williamson said all Heucks Retreat’s accounts were reviewed to complete the department’s audit.

“We couldn’t verify what it was spent for until (Galey) did some checking on it, but everything came back OK,” he said.

Heucks Retreat VFD Chief Mike Campbell said the audit mistakes were simple forgetfulness.

“There was a couple of receipts that didn’t get put in. It’s something everybody goes through — you forget a receipt laying on the desk,” he said. “Everything is good now.”

Between earmarked millage from Lincoln County and insurance rebate money from the state, the county’s eight VFDs share more than $240,000 in tax-payer funding annually. Each department received between $20,000 and $30,000 from the county in 2017, though several departments’ disbursements were docked to make payments on new fire trucks.

Heucks Retreat’s brief paperwork issue seemed to have spooked the Board of Supervisors, which has dealt with several cases of embezzlement and missing money at the VFDs over the years.

Helen Jean Mercier, a former treasurer with the Bogue Chitto Volunteer Fire Department, was arrested in September 2016 and charged with embezzlement. She plead guilty a year later and was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to repay more than $47,000 to the department.

Former New Sight VFD Chief Mike Boyd was arrested in 2010 after an investigation found he had taken more than $24,000 from his department over a two-year period. He plead guilty and was also sentenced to prison and ordered to repay the money.

Other, smaller incidents have been common, said District 4 Supervisor Eddie Brown.

“We have a lot of good folks in the volunteer fire departments, but every now and then it happens — someone jumps up and does something that’s not right,” he said. “It’s better to be legal and know all the ins and outs than to hear that ol’ iron door slam behind you.”

District 5 Supervisor Doug Falvey was the lone “no” vote on the board’s new auditing policy. He said he opposed the resolution because he believes every VFD should be audited by an independent third-party every year to ensure unbiased reviewing.

During the February board meeting, he said the situation at Heucks Retreat did not “pass the smell test.” He questioned Galey as to why the department did not provide Shedd with full documentation.

“I know it’s $500, but when you go back and you wind up with embezzlement like we had at Bogue Chitto, $500 is pretty cheap. It’s the taxpayers’ money we’re dealing with, and part of our job is making sure it’s being spent like it’s supposed to be,” Falvey said. “I know those people with the VFDs and I admire them for doing that, because not everybody can make those sacrifices like they do. So we need to support them, and when you support them, you make sure the money is being spent like it should be.”