Fire Board Tackles Finances

Financing the fire department’s operations took up the majority of the nearly three-hour long meeting of the Fire Department Board on Monday.  The board is trying to determine where the fire department stands on expenses and back bills owed to vendors.

Board Secretary Bill Jones began the discussion with an outline of what he has been able to determine from reviewing audits and other documents over the past several months.  Jones figures showed for 2019, the last year audited, the department took in over 2 million dollars and spent over 2.6 million.  Jones said he has found that the department overspent by approximately half a million dollars each year for several years.  This has depleted a considerable surplus the fire department had a few years ago.

Jones complained that he had not received information requested of the former board, from PMI (their payroll management firm) and others furnishing services to the fire department. 

Representatives of the state Firefighters Retirement system were present at the meeting.  They said the department had not fully funded contributions to the retirement system beginning late last year.  Trey Welch said the fire department paid 9% of payroll into the system each month, beginning last October.  He said they should have paid over 30%.  Those payments fund the retirement accounts for firefighters employed by the department.  Welch said the payments were short about $20,000 per month.

Bill Jones noted that they board has been advised that for 2021 the contribution was going up from 32.25% to 33.75%.  Welch said the rate is determined by a formula set out in state law, and not by the retirement board.

The board discussed the contract with PMI, the department’s payroll firm, and several associated companies for services delivered.  Jones said PMI was one of the firms he had requested information from and that he had not received anything from them.

District Attorney Julie Jones represents the board.  She said she reviewed the contracts with PMI and Risk Solutions and they said they would provide the board with services, but there was no description of what those services would be.  Julie Jones said in 2018 the board approved an agreement for $750 a month.

After much discussion, the board voted to immediately terminate the contracts with PMI and Risk Solutions, LLC.

The board retained the services of Kylie Shaw, a local accountant, to provide payroll and other services, including working to straighten out the department’s finances.  She is to prepare a budget analysis, set up the department’s payroll system, and get the financial statements into shape.  Bill Jones made the motion to hire Shaw at the rate of $100 per hour.  That motion passed.

Another topic was the department’s revenue bonds.  These are the bonds voters renewed in an election last summer.  The fire department had asked for the election two years before the property tax expired.  It was said at the time that Hancock Whitney Bank would then refinance the new fire station for 12 years, and that would allow the department to drastically cut the note to repay the bonds.  It was revealed at the meeting that Hancock Whitney had backed out of the refinancing deal.  In addition that bank was charging the fire department a $13,000 penalty for early payoff of the note.

It was revealed that Sabine State Bank had purchased $1,400,000 of the bonds and Bank of Coushatta had purchased $300,000 worth.  A payment to Sabine State Bank of $78,000 would be due March first, with two payments due per year until March 31st of 2033.

Regarding Fire Chief Shane Felts, the board took several steps to restrict his access to finances and save money on services that had been provided to the chief.  The board voted to cancel the OnStar contract for two Suburbans owned by the department.  The board passed a resolution to restrict Felts to credit card access and to ending all access to bank accounts and financial records of the department.  Board President Shawn Beard is drafting a letter to Felts advising him that the board will be looking into his conducting his duties as chief.  That letter is to be reviewed by Julie Jones prior to presentation to Felts.

The board decided to retain the services of Rachal Long as fire department secretary.  Long had resigned her position with PMI (employed about 40 hours a month to assist with payroll).  She will now work for the fire department board.

The board spent considerable time discussing the monthly bills and other debts of the department.  A list of current bills was presented.  Several services that were determined not to be necessary are to be cancelled. 

It was revealed that the department rents land from local businessman John Paul.  The land was originally rented by the department as the site of a radio tower.  That tower is no longer used and during discussion it was said that the tower has deteriorated and is no longer safe to climb.  The lease on the land is for 20 years and will run until 2028.  The lease amount is $450 per month and no rent payment has been made for several years.

On Beard’s recommendation, the board approved paying current and past due bills.  They also voted to pay the amount due to the state Firefighters Retirement System and to pay the tower rent for one year and two months.

The next meeting of the fire department board will be March 8, 2021 at 10:00 am at the fire station.