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December 9, 2013

Allegations brought against Riverside VFD

HUNTSVILLE — Officials are looking into allegations that one of the county’s volunteer fire departments has been engaging in illegal use of department equipment and other improprieties after the board that oversees the department brought its concerns to Walker County Commissioners Court on Monday.

Two members of the Emergency Service District No. 1 board said that numerous complaints over the past three years have been filed against the Riverside Volunteer Fire Department, including allegations that the department falsified documents, misused department equipment and vehicles for personal business and violated emergency medical technician rules and procedures.

Board member Lee Murrah said Monday that ESD No. 1, which provides funding to the Riverside, Dodge and Thomas Lake volunteer fire departments, has already taken measures to address the issues.

“What is happening right now is the ESD has suspended grant funding where we put money into a bank account that (Riverside VFD) can spend as long as they give us receipts,” Murrah said. “Last month we said we did not want them to go under and wanted them to be able to pay their bills, so we decided that we would fund by reimbursement. They present us with the bill and we will reimburse the money spent.”

Murrah said that the Riverside VFD is undergoing a financial audit as part of the investigation and that some of the allegations were taken about two years ago to the Walker County District Attorney’s Office to investigate.

District Attorney David Weeks said Monday that the county referred the case to Texas Ranger Steve Jeter, but Jeter found no evidence to warrant launching a criminal investigation.

“Basically there were suspicions, but there was not any real proof anything illegal was going on,” Weeks said. “If something comes up as a result of the audit then there could be another investigation.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner B.J. Gaines Jr., asked Murrah on Monday what ESD No. 1 expected out of the court.

“I think the commissioners need to look at (Riverside’s) funding and if the commissioners think changes need to be made, I think it will take all the funding agencies to take action to get those changes made,” he said. “We just want you to know what we are doing.”

Gaines said that the ESD should take precaution moving forward because these were “serious allegations.”

“Those accusations are real strong,” Gaines said. “Anybody can accuse anybody of doing anything, but there needs to be proof of something. It sounds like some of these things can put people in jail if they are true.”

Murrah stressed that these were just allegations from the firefighting community that were being investigated.

“Our main concern — obviously if there was a breach of the law it is a concern — but I think the most important thing is to get the department fixed,” Murrah said.

Murrah said there were several options the ESD could take in the future as to providing funding to the Riverside VFD. The ESD could continue grant funding — Riverside’s two stations get $3,900 combined a month — under certain conditions; keep going with the reimbursement method; or terminate the contract ESD has with Riverside.

“Terminating the contract would be a drastic measure,” Murrah said. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the safety of the community, and we don’t think it will because Thomas Lake and Huntsville respond to fires in that area.

“We would be happy to continue to fund (Riverside), but changes have to be made.”

The county is working on renewing contracts with local volunteer fire departments. County Judge Danny Pierce said Monday that the county would not take any action concerning county funding to the Riverside VFD until it got the results of the audit.

“It is an alleged wrong doing at this point, and I assume it is an ongoing investigation,” Pierce said. “Until it goes to either the DA’s Office or grand jury, we can’t freeze any funding at this point. We have a new contract going into effect on Jan. 1, 2014 with the rural fire departments and as long as they concur contractually with those we will not be doing anything else.”

Pierce said the county intended to follow a thorough process to ensure proper use of county funds.

“It is not that we don’t want the rules to be followed or things to be done right. We want taxpayer dollars to be spent on what they are supposed to. We are not turning our heads. It just has to go through the proper channels first,” he said.

Riverside VFD Chief Gabe Johnson did not return phone calls from The Huntsville Item on Monday.

 

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