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Government, Politics & Issues

Burning issue: Fire districts have history of alleged wrong-doing, failed reforms

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 25, 2009 - Months before the Sunday fracas that got him arrested, state Rep. Don Calloway says he had sought to persuade the Missouri Legislature to change the laws governing the state's fire protection districts.

Echoing the longstanding concerns of the St. Louis County Municipal League, Calloway wants to mandate that the districts have at least five-member boards -- state law now requires only three -- and to shorten their six-year terms.

"I came to the Legislature with the intent of filing that bill last year," said Calloway, D-Bel Nor and a first-term legislator. That plan was scuttled, Calloway continued, when he was told -- he won't say by whom -- that such a measure had no chance.

But now, with the controversy surrounding the Northeast Fire Protection District front-page news, Calloway plans to try again and pre-file in the next few weeks a similar bill for the coming legislative session.

Ironically, he may get some support from a key political opponent: former state Rep. Elbert Walton, the lawyer for the Northeast Fire Protection District and blamed by critics for many of its financial woes.

Walton maintains that he also has long supported the idea of expanding the board and cutting its terms, as did his wife, former state Rep. Juanita Head Walton, but that the state Capitol blocked the proposal.

"The only other politicians in the state who get to serve six-year terms are in the U.S. Senate," Walton said.

But if history offers any hints, such apparent broad agreement for change is no guarantee that it'll happen.

Exactly five years ago, many Missouri legislative leaders -- including then-House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill -- promised changes in the wake of a massive Post-Dispatch series detailing the problems plaguing many of the region's fire districts.

Nothing happened.

In fact, legislative proposals to revamp the state's fire districts have been a staple for decades, at least since the 1970s. In most cases, officials pledged action in response to periodic flareups of alleged wrongdoing engulfing one or more of the region's dozens of fire districts.

Little has changed.

Tim Fischesser, executive director of the Municipal League, directs some blame to Local 2665 of the Professional Firefighters of Eastern Missouri, which represents firefighters in many of the region's fire houses. The union, he says, has been astute in winning elections for many like-minded fire district directors and sympathetic state legislators.

But Clayton firefighter Kurt Becker, district vice president for Local 2665, asserts that critics of fire districts or the union tend to unfairly "paint with a broad brush" the troubles that generally plague only a few districts.

In fact, he notes that the union has no clout with the Northeast District, which tossed out the labor contract two years ago, or in the Mehlville Fire District, another one that has been beset with turmoil.

What many area officials also don't understand, Becker continued, is that changing the state fire district laws will have a huge impact beyond the St. Louis region, affecting rural parts of the state as well.

As a result, outstate legislators -- who often have links to local political leaders who wield influence in their fire districts -- tend to be cool to any talk of altering the current arrangement.

"You can't rewrite the '321' laws," Becker explained, "and not expect to see (political) blood on the streets."

MOST OF REGION'S HOMES PROTECTED BY FIRE DISTRICTS

The firefighter official is referring to Section 321 of the Missouri statutes, which governs the hundreds of fire protection districts that dot the state.

The districts are independent governmental units, with their own boundary lines and tax rates, charged with only one main function: fighting fires.

In St. Louis County, roughly three-quarters of the population falls within 23 fire protection districts, many of which cross municipal or township boundaries. The rest of the county is protected by 20 municipal fire departments, which are part of municipal governments.

Rarely are there true contests for the fire district posts, locally or elsewhere in the state, since many of the directors serve without pay and often without fanfare. That's not true for many districts in St. Louis County, where some districts pay each director $200 a meeting and provide health insurance.

One of the few attractions, said Becker, is the fact that their terms are six years -- meaning, a typical director won't have to focus on raising money or campaigning through much of his or her term.

In the late 1970s, local headlines were filled with accounts of the controversy involving four fire districts that were targets of the now-defunct Local 398 of the St. Louis County Firefighters Union, and its powerful president at the time, Richard Walker.

A fire district lawyer who figured in that controversy, Don Anton, pleaded guilty years later to federal charges of alleged wrongdoing involving police and fire pension funds.

In 1988, after another wave of unfavorable stories involving fire districts, a county Board of Freeholders -- formed to encourage local-government consolidation -- called for replacing all local fire departments and fire districts. The board initially called for a single countywide fire district, with four subdistricts. Later, a new plan called for four districts, each to cover a quarter of the county.

Then-St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary contended that such consolidation could save $9 million a year by ending unnecessary duplication of equipment and personnel.

Even so, the freeholders' effort died.

The Municipal League notes that its members re-approved in October a legislative agenda that calls for change in the fire district laws.

"With a structure that includes few citizens, no built-in checks and balances on revenues, and very small boards, it is possible for a small group to gain control of a multimillion dollar fire district," the league's agenda states. "In some cases, tax rates appear to be unnecessarily high, some of the revenues used to benefit a narrow group, and questionable judgment exercised when purchasing equipment."

Fischesser and Becker agree that fire-district firefighters often are paid more than their municipal counterparts, but the two disagree on the reason.

Fischesser credits the firefighters' union and its success in winning elections for sympathetic board members who then approve higher pay.

Becker counters that higher pay is warranted because fire districts generally cover more territory and have lower per-capita overhead than the municipal departments. Some larger fire districts span 40-50 square miles, he said, compared to municipal departments that cover just a few square miles but still have a fire chief, deputy chief and other higher paid administrators.

The league and the firefighters have been seeking common ground, notably working together this fall to win countywide passage of E-911, which increases the county sales tax to pay for new communications equipment.

Fischesser and Becker both said that the league and the firefighters group have been in discussions about changes that both might support. But Fischesser also tends to share Becker's doubts that the public will soon see any legislative action to change the current fire-district setup.

"I haven't seen much traction or interest in Jefferson City," Fischesser said.

TROUBLES IN NORTHEAST FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT

The Northeast Fire Protection District, formerly known as the Normandy Fire Protection District, takes in more than a dozen communities in the northeast part of St. Louis County.

Last week, state Auditor Susan Montee laid out a limited audit that she called "the worst audit I've done" among the 300-plus that her office has conducted during the past three years.

She faulted the district's three directors for failure to follow basic record-keeping procedures, which she said has led to money being hard to track and in wrong accounts.

Montee also cited Walton's $120,000 a year salary, which she said was several times the payments paid to his counterparts in nearby districts.

The auditor and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster have both launched lawsuits against the district, and county Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch also is continuing to look into the controversy, his staff said. (Local residents were involved in a petition that resulted in the  replacement of one board member.)

This week, the fire district's critics won a couple legal rounds when a judge acted to continue a freeze on district spending, and to block more than $780,000 in severance payments that the district board approved during an emergency meeting Sunday. (Click here to read Post-Dispatch's latest story.)

The payments were to go to Fire Chief Joseph L. Washington and to two district lawyers, including Walton.

Walton contended in an interview that race is the reason the district is attracting so much scrutiny. "This is a racist attack on a black lawyer who's making money, a black board and a black fire chief," he said.

His pay is justified, he said, because "you do work, and you bill and you get paid for it."

Walton also blames the firefighters union, which he said opposes him because he's been successful with his Unity PAC in winning elections for fire-district board members who side with him, not the union.

Walton disputes Montee's assertion that the district blocked access to some financial documents, and he also questions whether she even has the legal right to audit the district.

Walton said Judge Richard C. Bresnahan has been wrong in his decisions. "Shouldn't we get a trial?" Walton asked.

Calloway filed the suit that prompted the spending freeze. Calloway, who also is African American, says race has nothing to do with the problems in the Northeast Fire Protection District. He called Walton "a crook."

Walton countered by calling Calloway "a fool," and cited the front-page photo of Calloway in handcuffs, when the legislator was arrested for attempting to snatch the board's checkbook during Sunday's meeting.

Calloway said he was simply trying to find out what bank the board was using to write those hefty severance checks, which Calloway opposed.

Such animosity raises questions about the likelihood that Calloway and Walton will work together on fire-district changes, even if they both agree.

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