Audits revealed inconsistencies, departments made personnel changes

CORRECTION: The Santa Rosa Press Gazette incorrectly stated Rachel Connell is a licensed CPA, in Saturday's printed edition. Connell has not yet completed a CPA exam. We apologize for the error.

Both the East Milton Volunteer Fire Department and the Pace Fire Rescue District have made personnel changes after their 2014 fiscal budgets revealed inconsistencies. While the fire district has terminated their chief financial officer, the East Milton department hired a new fire chief. Both departments have also hired new book keepers to address their financial issues.

According to officials, East Milton’s fiscal irregularities appeared from an internal audit conducted by an Santa RosaCounty auditor. Pace’s irregularities came to light in June and is still under investigation on an internal basis within the department.

Brad Baker, SRC’s emergency services coordinator said the East Milton’s budgetary problems stem from an annual checks and balances audit conducted by a county auditor. Baker stressed the audit accounts for each receipt matching the check and not  reviewing each budget line item for each department.

According to a memorandum from SRC Internal Auditor Wade Burroughs to SRC Clerk of Court Don Spencer, the EastMilton Fire Department had several issues providing documentation of expenditures.

Since then, Baker said East Milton is continuing to address the budgetary concerns with the county’s emergency operations center, which acts as a liaison between the MSBU fire departments and the county commissioners. 

“We have met with the (East Milton) board president and made some recommendations to them and part of that would be hiring an accountant to handle their transactions and implement some payroll procedures,” he said. “They are working by bringing us all of the supporting documentation.”

Robert Toole recently took over as East Milton fire chief from William Thompson, who remains with the department.

Toole said poor book keeping is to blame for the audit troubles which is being addressed.

 “Nothing illegal has been done. A lot of people right off the bat (said) we were stealing money,” he said. “It’s just a receipt trail that just got lost and we just about got it fixed.”

Since bringing in a new bookkeeper earlier this month, Toole is confident with where the department currently stands.

“It does make us look bad when something like that happens, but like I said, we have nothing to hide,” he said. “Anybody is welcome to audit us if they want to.”

East Milton’s MSBU funding for the month of October has been frozen by the county until the inconsistencies are addressed. However, Toole expects the department’s budget to be corrected in a couple of weeks.

“I have no ill feeling towards anybody about this. It’s just a mistake. We made it and we paid for it and we are going to do it right.”

The Pace Fire Rescue District is in the midst of an ongoing internal investigation which revealed deficiencies and discrepancies in their budget leading to the June 13th termination of Chief Financial Officer Lee Pitts. Fire Chief Donnie Wadkins said the department has since taken corrective action by hiring Rachel Connell to oversee the department’s finances. Connell is also expected to present a report of her findings of the 2013-2014 budget shortfalls to the department’s board of directors, Wadkins said.

As the internal investigation continues, it is not known at this time how much of Pace’s funding was misplaced during Pitts tenure or whether the matter will be brought before the state attorney’s office.

“If it is where we need to do that, then that is where it is going to go,” Wadkins said in regards to whether Pitts could face charges pending the internal investigation.

Unlike the CFO position which was full time, Connell is only considered a part time employee with the district, Wadkins said.

“I feel like we have now taken care of the situation,” he said. “The taxpayers are getting a bigger bang for their buck and everything is covered like it needs to be.”

Baker credited both departments with taking corrective measures in the matter, adding Burroughs will address each MSBU  fire department official at October 12ts executive group meeting. Burroughs will address the budgetary expectations of each department official.

 “There has been a sense of urgency for us. Sometimes I don’t know that they sense that it is an urgency,” Baker said. “Their mindset is that they are in the fire business. Our mindset is that you got to be responsible for the money.”

The 2014 MSBU fire departments for Santa RosaCounty are expected within the next few weeks. Previous audits are available to view on the county’s emergency management website at www.santarosa.fl.gov/firedept.

 Follow the Santa Rosa Press Gazette as more information is released on this matter.