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Audit: Fire district trips 'questionable'

Lakeland Fire Department volunteers respond to downed power

Lakeland Fire Department volunteers respond to downed power lines that set a vehicle on fire on Port Avenue off Johnson Avenue in Ronkonkoma. (Nov. 29, 2011) Credit: Robert Garofalo

The Lakeland Fire District's commissioners spent more than $15,000 on undocumented expenses during five out-of-town conferences, and submitted $23,000 in reimbursement claims during these "questionable" trips, according to an audit released by the state comptroller's office.

The audit, which covered a period from January 2011 to November 2012, also found the Ronkonkoma-based district failed to use the "most cost-effective and reasonable means of travel" to the conferences, which could have saved the district more than $12,000.

"Although the District adopted a conference and seminar travel policy, it has not been updated since 1996 and has not been consistently applied," the audit said. "The policy is not adequate," lacking required board approval for trip expenses, guidelines for documentation of expenses, or limits on daily expenditures.

In a response, board chairman John DiFilippo said the district would follow the audit's recommendations.

"The Board will review all related travel expenses and where appropriate seek reimbursement, and insure that the past practice and policies be modified and changed," DiFilippo wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to the comptroller.

Calls to the fire district were not immediately returned.

The district spent a total of $97,935 on training and conferences during the period covered by the audit, with $52,068 of that amount spent on the five out-of-town conferences.

The audit singled out two trips to Las Vegas and New Orleans. In May 2012, eight of the district's officials spent $13,385 to attend a conference in Las Vegas where they "did not register for the conference, did not stay at the discounted conference hotel, and did not attend any of the training/learning sessions while they were in Las Vegas," the audit said. "We were told by District officials that they attended the conference to look at equipment. We question the reasonableness and necessity of sending eight individuals to Las Vegas."

The district said in response that while the trips had been "convenient" to evaluate equipment, the board would no longer take them.

The district also spent $8,869 in October to send three officials to a New Orleans conference, where an official attended "only one 45-minute keynote presentation" during the seven-day conference, the audit said.

"We question whether the cost . . . is a legitimate business purpose and a reasonable and necessary use of public funds," the audit said. In response, the district said it would create an updated travel policy that would include mandating attendance at conference events.

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