by Emily Waldrep
Most county residents understand how important volunteer fire departments are to a large, heavily wooded, rural county. Last year's drought and almost constant fires in Tyler County are certainly a good example of these department's importance. Because of that, most residents don't complain about the cost to maintain those VFD's. What they do expect, though, is that these fire departments will be good stewarts of the tax dollars that go to support them, and that they will keep records to show where those dollars went. According to a report by a forensic auditing firm hired by Commissioners, four of the county fire departments failed in that record keeping responsibility.
Tyler County Judge Jacques Blanchette explained that the county is served by seven Emergency Service Districts (ESD), each of which has a number of board members. These districts exist to receive tax money from the Tax Accessor/Collector and distribute that money to emergency services entities within their district. In larger counties, these entities can include EMS and other services, as well as fire departments. Blanchette explained, though, that in Tyler County, the volunteer fire departments receive all the funding from the ESD's. Prior to 2012, these ESD's operated under a couple of laws, with reporting requirements that some considered ambiguous. To resolve this ambiguity, the state passed SB 917.
Blanchette said that with the signing of SB 917 into law, commissioners wanted to be sure the ESD's were in compliance with the accountibility requirements of the new law, and asked the County Auditor to conduct an internal audit of the VFD's books. She ultimately informed commissioners that she could not complete the audit on four of the seven ESD's because there was a substantial lack of documentation, or no documentation at all. With this information, commissioners voted to call in an outside forensic auditing firm. Forensic auditors attempt to construct an audit trail from individual records, such as receipts, invoices, bank records, etc.
According to the Tyler County Commissioners Court ESD Investigative report conducted on June 12, 2012, four fire departments in Tyler County are lacking proper documentation concerning what their funding is being spent on. The commissioners called in a forensic auditor to examine the use of tax proceeds and related expenditures by Emergency Service Districts (ESD's) earlier in June. Ivanhoe Fire Department, Colmesneil Fire Department, Whitetail Ridge Fire Department and Fred Fire Department were all included in the study.
The investigation covered proceeds from January 2009 to December 2011 for each of the four Volunteer Fire Departments. The findings noted that Ivanhoe deposited about 96.13 percent of the tax proceeds, Colmesneil deposited approximately 82.52 percent of the tax proceeds, Whitetail Ridge deposited 100.98 percent of the proceeds and Fred deposited 90.44 percent of the tax proceeds. Whitetail ridge reached 100.98 percent by not depositing any funds between December 2009 and November 2010, but made a deposit that created the overage in September 2011.
Because of the inconsistency in the deposits, the report suggested that, in the future, the Tyler County Tax Assessor wire the funds into the appropriate bank accounts instead of issuing checks to each Fire Department.
The next section of the report looked into how each ESD spent their tax money. To do this, the forensic auditor traced transactions within each bank account and collected documents from the Volunteer Fire Departments that would show how the money had been spent. Whitetail Ridge and Fred did not turn in any valid support to support the money that they had spent. According to the report, valid support is "a receipt or document that supported the expenditure amount and that the expenditure appeared to be related to the ongoing operations of a fire department."
Bank records show that Ivanhoe VFD spent a total of $298,181.66 from January 2, 2009 until November 30, 2011. Only 25.73 percent of the money spent had valid support, 70.09 percent had no support at all, 4.06 percent had partial support and .11 percent didn't have valid support.
Colmesneil VFD reportedly spent a total of $139,364.12 from January 4, 2010 until September 27, 2011. Only 19.50 percent of that money had valid support while 69.37 percent had no support at all.
Whitetail Ridge VFD spent a total of $17,022.66 from March 3, 2009 until October 26, 2011, but failed to provide any supporting documentation to the auditor for 100 percent of the money spent.
Fred VFD spent $243,853.85 from January 26, 2009 to November 23, 2011 and also failed to provide any documentation as to what the money was spent on.
In response to the outside auditor's report, commissioners made changes to the ESD boards, replacing some of the board members, and making changes to assure there were no conflict of interest within the ESD's and VFD's involved. They also made changes to be sure the deficient ESD's would keep proper records and and be accountable to the tax payers.
Despite these corrective actions, there is still the matter of several hundred thousand dollars of tax money sent to the ESD's over a three year period that cannot be accounted for. Blancette explained that the Commissioners Court has done all within its power to fix whatever problems existed, but is not a criminal court. The District Attorney will now look the information from the auditors and determine if there was any criminal activity involved.
The report suggested that each of the fire departments included in the study review their current management and come up with better ways to manage their spending and that the tax dollars of Tyler County citizens should always be documented and not spent on things the departments do not need. Commissioners have taken the steps they considered necessary to make those changes.