At its monthly meeting Tuesday night in Platte City, the Central Platte Fire District’s Board of Directors unanimously approved hiring an independent accounting firm to conduct a thorough audit of the District’s financial procedures and management.
Marr and Company, of Kansas City, was selected from three bidders to do an audit of the District’s books/procedures for the 2009, 2010 and 2011 fiscal years. The price tab will be a base fee of $19,500 and additional expenses are expected which will likely push the total cost to well past $20,000.
If you are a taxpayer in the District, this may strike you as a good thing. Or it may not.
Let’s talk first about why this is a good thing.
For starters, Central Platte has never had an independent audit, so one could say that the District is overdue for outside eyes to take a look at how it operates and handles taxpayer money.
It’s also a good thing because often an independent audit will identify areas in which the entity being audited can improve its operation or procedures and theoretically save time and money.
And, of course, it’s a good thing because it sheds light on the District’s operations and brings it all into public view. This transparency is essential to building and keeping public trust.
So, given those qualifiers, I have no problem saying the audit is mostly a good thing.
But there are a few items we need to talk about that may make taxpayers think that maybe it’s not such a good thing after all.
To begin with, why do you think that the decades-old Central Platte Fire District has never paid for an outside audit? Answer: it does not have to. Because its annual tax revenue is less than $1 million — it’s projected at $640,000 for the current year — the District is not required by law to have an outside audit performed.
Now, just because it is not required to hire an independent auditor does not mean that Central Platte shouldn’t do it anyway, if for nothing else than to prove to the public that it is taking good care of its money.
You can’t argue with that logic.
You also can’t argue with this logic: the District is spending more than $20,000 performing an audit that is neither required nor — and this is my opinion — warranted.
I happen to think that the District choosing to entrust its fiduciary management to its own certified public accountant is a savvy move. Trust me when I tell you that Central Platte financial officer Lisa Bjustrom does a fine job and works fairly cheap, too.
This enables the District to spend its money where it needs it most — on vehicles and equipment, training and compensation for its volunteer firefighters. And before we go on, let’s make sure we all understand that last point. Central Platte is manned by volunteer firefighters. That is, they volunteer their time and services for a paltry $13 per-call stipend, which is what they are paid whether they are responding for 20 minutes or risking their lives for four hours. They are not paid a full-time salary, they do not receive benefits such as insurance and paid days off. Last year, Central Platte paid its 34 firefighters about $145,000 for their time responding to more than 1,100 fire and emergency medical calls. A good chunk of those came when you and I were sleeping.
And, just in case you were wondering, if Central Platte was a paid department — meaning that salaried personnel were on call 24/7 — it would cost taxpayers about three times that afore-mentioned $145,000 to keep the bare minimum of men and equipment at the ready.
Yes, that would require a much higher tax levy than the 31.31-cents per $100 we Central Platte taxpayers currently pay. If you’re interested just how much more it would be, check out the tax levies for the Smithville and Southern Platte Fire Districts.
But, I digress. Where was I?
Oh yeah — the audit.
This whole discussion begs the question: why is the District now all of a sudden anxious to spend $20,000-plus on an audit when it can be argued that it doesn’t really need it?
Well, since you asked.... Central Platte Board member Andy Stanton, who defeated longtime Board member Stanley George by 10 votes last April, has been clamoring for an audit ever since he took over the post. And he was so convinced that he would meet opposition from fellow Board members Paul Regan and Mike Ashcraft that he approached Platte County Auditor Kevin Robinson last fall about doing an audit without first discussing it with them. I had to laugh when, at a meeting late last year, Regan first called Stanton out on it and then said he had no qualms about doing an audit. Ashcraft chimed in with the same take. That kind of shortchanged Stanton’s “you guys have something to hide and I’m going to find out what it is” crusade.
Another aspect of Stanton pushing for the audit is this: here is a guy who is known for questioning every expense that is not required to keep the lights on and now he wants to spend $20,000 when the District doesn’t have to? So, why did Stanton instigate the audit? He’s a smart enough guy to know that any procedural improvements suggested by an audit and then followed by the District likely won’t come close to paying for such an expense. Likewise, an audit may suggest that the District not spend its money here or spend it there, or keep better records or ..... fill in the blank, but there’s only one way the expense of this independent audit can be justified. And that’s if it uncovers intentional wrongdoing. You know, like embezzlement or some other misappropriation of funds. My guess is that’s why Stanton wants it done — he thinks he’s going to catch somebody doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.
It must be a burden to look through the lenses of mistrust and suspicion all the time. Of course, if the audit does turn up some grievous misuse of public money, I will be the first to apologize to Stanton and a few other critics of the District.
Having said that, however, it is my guess that no such wrongdoing will be uncovered, meaning that $20,000 could have been spent more wisely — like helping to put out a fire or save a life.
Thanks for reading.
Lee Stubbs is owner/editor of The Citizen. He may be reached by e-mail at editor@plattecountycitizen. com or by calling 858-5154. Follow him on Twitter @leejstubbs.