Iowa mayor fires entire volunteer fire department

The cut was born out of the fire department's non-compliance with a citywide audit

The Gazette

JONES COUNTY, Iowa — The mayor of a small Jones County community fired the town’s entire volunteer fire department Monday night.

Onslow Fire Chief Darrin Schaefer said he’s still trying to figure out why the move was made. Mayor Curtis Thornhill said the cut was spurred by the fire department’s noncompliance with a city-wide audit.

“The fire department here is reluctant to provide the auditor with information that’s needed to complete this audit,” Thornhill said Wednesday. “This constitutes an unfavorable light on the city and possibly gives the city a negative audit.”

Schaefer said he went to a city council meeting Monday night and delivered the fire chief’s report.

“After my report, the mayor made the announcement that – effective in 30 days – he’s firing the volunteer fire department,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer, who has been with the nine member volunteer department for nearly 20 years and chief for the last nine, said he has “no idea” why Thornhill dissolved the department. Schaefer said he spoke with city council members and they also had no insights on Thornhill’s decision-making. Three members of the fire department sit on the city council.

“They don’t know what to say about it,” Schaefer said.

Thornhill, who has been mayor for two years and served one year as a city councilor prior to that, said his decision came after two months of trying to get information from the fire department as part of an audit. Onslow is preparing to embark on a $1.3 million sewer project and the audit is part of that process.

Complicating the issue is the Smoke Eaters, an association formed in 2004 by members of the Onslow Fire Department. Schaefer said the city requested the association be formed to distance the fire department from the city in the event of a lawsuit. The Smoke Eaters is made up of firefighters and non-firefighters and conducts fundraising to buy firefighting equipment, which Schaefer said the association allows the city to use.

Thornhill said the city discovered the Smoke Eaters have been operating as a nonprofit organization, despite losing that designation in 2007.

“When it came up, the citizens requested a city audit,” Thornhill said. “That’s when all heck broke loose. They’re reluctant to provide the auditor with the necessary information the auditor needs to complete the city audit.”

Schaefer said the Smoke Eaters did lose their nonprofit status when the IRS changed its rules about filing. The Smoke Eaters failed to file necessary paperwork and lost its nonprofit organization designation.

“It fell through the cracks,” he said, adding the association has reapplied to be a nonprofit.

Thornhill said he wants financial information from the fire department on their $5,600 budget, as well as finances from the Smoke Eaters. He suggested that some money may have been mishandled or misappropriated. A potential criminal investigation, involving two federal agencies Thornhill declined to identify, is underway.

Schaefer called Thornhill’s comments an “interesting accusation” and “speculation on his part.”

Schaefer scoffed at the notion he had mishandled any money. He said the city clerk handles all of the fire department’s finances. He said the Smoke Eaters’ finances are separate from the city’s and not subject to the audit.

The whole matter can be put to rest if Schaefer turns over the financial documents for the Smoke Eaters, Thornhill said.

“It’s a simple matter of providing the auditors and the city with the records that they should have,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

What happens when the 30 days is up remains to be seen. In the meantime, Schaefer said if Onslow residents are concerned what will happen if the fire department is terminated, they should contact the city council.

“You need to tell your city council what your feeling is, what your thoughts are,” he said. “People of the community need to realize they need to have their voices heard.”

Copyright 2013 The Gazette
All Rights Reserved

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