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Opinion

Editorial: Fire audit finds weaknesses

The Uniondale Fire Department engaged in

The Uniondale Fire Department engaged in "questionable" practices, according to a recent state audit. Credit: Tara Conry

Eight years ago, a Newsday investigative series pulled back the veil of secrecy on fire district operations. The fallout included state legislation designed to create greater scrutiny of agencies that had conducted business in the dark.

Some districts still have not gotten the message.

A new state comptroller's audit of the Uniondale fire district uncovered a raft of financial irregularities stemming from weak policies and controls and little or no oversight by the board of commissioners. That's unacceptable.

Among the findings: More than $43,000 from renting the firehouse's second-floor hall is missing after the commissioner who rented the hall failed to deposit the money. Board members racked up more than $44,000 in questionable credit card purchases in the 21-month period studied and spent more than $20,000 for unapproved meals with no documentation of who participated or why they were necessary district expenditures. The district also had more sport utility vehicles than necessary. The board of commissioners, to its credit, accepted the findings and agreed to the reforms recommended by the report.

Other audits have shown many fire districts -- whose commissioners draft budgets, buy equipment and set policy for the departments whose firefighters respond to emergencies -- are conducting themselves appropriately. But the Uniondale audit and one last year of the Lakeland Fire District -- where eight officials spent more than $13,000 at a Las Vegas conference for which they did not register or attend any training or learning sessions -- show continued vigilance is required.

Eight years later, the message remains the same: Fire districts funded by taxpayer dollars must spend that money properly and provide a full accounting.

It's a matter of public trust, and the law.

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