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Messenger: Lawsuit poses simple question to fire district: Where’s the money going?

Messenger: Lawsuit poses simple question to fire district: Where’s the money going?

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Robertson fire truck

Robertson Fire Protection District firetrucks

Not long after Dave and Jennifer Guyton moved to Hazelwood, they realized their neighbors were organized into two camps:

There were those who thought the city of Hazelwood was trying to bankrupt the Robertson Fire Protection District, and those who thought the fire district was bankrupting the city. The dispute has been raging for more than two decades, almost as long as the city has contracted with the fire district to serve an area that Hazelwood had annexed.

Over the years, that contract has grown increasingly expensive, and the two parties have ended up in court over an attempt by the city to use its existing department to serve the area — where the Guytons live, for significantly less money.

The Guytons, concerned about the potential for their property taxes to dramatically rise, decided to do some investigation. “We didn’t know who to believe,” Jennifer says. “We came in as outsiders.”

The Robertson district has one of the highest tax rates in St. Louis County and a fairly low call volume. In their initial investigation, looking at publicly available data comparing fire districts in St. Louis County, the Guytons found that the Robertson fire district spends a lot of money, without a lot show for it at times.

For instance, Robertson, they found, has the highest cost per call of all the fire protection districts in St. Louis County, and it’s more than twice as much as Valley Park, a district with a similar number of firehouses, calls and assessed valuation.

The Robertson district’s costs for fuel, internet, cellphones and vehicle turnover all appeared to be higher than other fire districts in St. Louis County, in some cases by significant amounts.

The Guytons wanted to know where the money was going. With some of their neighbors they formed a nonprofit called Residents of Hazelwood Inc., and they filed some Sunshine Law requests to get answers. “I wanted to see the facts,” Dave says.

The fire district, as too many government bodies often are in Missouri, has been slow to respond to their requests. They got some information from looking at minutes for old meetings. For instance, the district has a program where it sells old equipment — including SUVs and ambulances — to employees, at apparently significant discounts. The Guytons sought the details: bids, sales records, and the like.

They didn’t get the records.

That’s why earlier this month, Residents of Hazelwood filed an open records lawsuit against the fire district.

“Plaintiff Residents for Hazelwood, Inc., has requested the defendants (Robertson Fire Protection District, its custodian of records, and its secretary) many times to make available or produce the district’s public records pursuant to Missouri’s freedom of information statutes,” the lawsuit, filed by attorney Paul Martin, alleges. “The defendants have failed or refused many of these requests, preventing the plaintiff from investigating, assessing, and disclosing the district’s expenditure of public funds and their use of district resources.”

The lawsuit names the district, its fire chief, Maynard Howell, and its board secretary, Michael Conley, as defendants. Chuck Billings, the general counsel for the fire district, declined comment. He said an outside attorney, Dan McLaughlin, is handling the defense. McLaughlin didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

The lawsuit notes that the district has a high turnover of vehicles, in which older models are sold to employees, but Sunshine Law requests didn’t produce the records from those alleged sales, including the sale of a “state-of-the-art” ambulance that was, apparently, sold to Howell.

“The district’s practice of ‘internal disposition’ of surplus property appears to have also resulted in the sale of other equipment to district insiders, including automobiles, computers, iPads, and commercial grade generators, but the plaintiff has not been able to identify the cost of the original equipment, to whom the equipment was sold, the condition of the equipment at the time of sale, —or whether the sales were made at fair market value, due to the failure or refusal of the district to produce the requested records,” the lawsuit alleges.

For the Guytons, the issue is simple. If the Robertson fire district can defend its out-of-whack spending that is causing budget problems for the city of Hazelwood, and high property taxes for its residents, it ought to be able to show residents the paperwork that explains the spending.

“Where’s the money going?” Jennifer asks. It’s a good question.

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