A long-awaited state audit of the Cathlamet Fire Department warns that greater fiscal controls are needed to make sure public money is not misspent, and it also raises new concerns about possible misuse of department credit cards for purchases of gasoline.
A year in the making, the audit says the agency's current system of financial management is "placing public resources at risk. .... Without monitoring or town oversight, funds could be co-mingled, unaccounted for or misappropriated."
The report bolsters Mayor George Wehrfitz's call for more controls over the agency finances.
"I'm not surprised by anything in it," Wehrfritz said. "I think the challenges ahead are daunting."
The 57-member volunteer fire department receives funding from the town, but up until this year its assistant chiefs had been in charge of managing department finances.
Assistant Fire Chief Fred Johnson said Tuesday the department has already addressed many of the auditors' concerns.
"Most of the things it talks about have already been taken care of," Johnson said, noting that audit doesn't allege any intentional wrongdoing by the department.
"I think it's interesting to point out what it doesn't say," Johnson said. "It doesn't say any money was missing. It doesn't say anything was misappropriated."
It does, however, say the agency purchased "unreasonable" amounts of unleaded gas on all four of its credit cards — not just the card involved in a recent fuel theft case.
From 2008 to 2010, the fire department spent nearly as much on unleaded fuel as it did on diesel fuel, even though 10 of its 11 vehicles use diesel, the audit notes.
About $8,000 of those purchases were made with a credit card that fire officials say was used without authorization for more than two years. A former volunteer firefighter pleaded guilty to second-degree theft for using the card to fill up his personal vehicle.
Auditors noted that case, but also stated that the $3,500 spent on unleaded fuel with three other credit cards during that time seemed too high. The department has one rescue vehicle and various equipment that use unleaded.
After discovering the theft, fire officials immediately implemented a new fuel purchasing policy, Johnson said.
In the past, the fire department kept four credit cards inside vehicles to be used for refueling. But officials couldn't trace who was using the cards and what vehicles were being filled.
"Based on the accessibility of the cards, it is difficult to quantify the exact amount of fuel loss," auditors wrote.
The fire department now requires volunteers to provide a detailed record of each fillup, Johnson said. He said those records are checked monthly.
Private bank accounts
State auditors also reported that fire officials won't share financial information in several bank accounts with the mayor, the Town Council or the auditors. Auditors also say the town must be allowed access to the fire department's financial records.
According to the audit report, fire department volunteers have kept several bank accounts without the town's knowledge. Fire officials say they shouldn't be required to release information related to those accounts because the accounts are private.
For example, one account is the Volunteer Firefighters Association fund. When volunteer firefighters receive stipends, they donate that money to a fund, which is often used to help pay for things like firehall improvements. The Fire Chief's Association fund is used to deposit outside donations, Johnson said. Both funds were set up years ago, he said.
Auditors state that the accounts are public because they were set up using the town's tax identification number and have been used to pay some department operating expenses.
Johnson said the department simply hadn't noticed that ID number was being used.
Lack of oversight
Auditors noted a lack of oversight in each of the last two audits. The mayor, Town Council members and fire officials have struggled to come to an agreement for how to reform the current management system.
Johnson said Wehrfritz has been too aggressive and often too public with his criticisms of the fire department. He said it has damaged community morale in the small town.
"The sores are just being ripped open," Johnson said. "He may well think he's doing the right thing, but I think his approach is detrimental to the community."
Wehrfritz said he hopes the audit helps move the town forward.
"I just hope this is a starting point," he said.
The Town Council meets Monday night. Wehrfritz said the issue isn't likely to be on the agenda, but he expects some discussion of the audit will take place.