North San Juan fire district reacts to audit
Some people are taking a hard look at the finances of the North San Juan Fire Protection District.
A recent audit of the rural fire department is being examined by county officials. And volunteers have raised questions about the district’s financial reporting.
Officials point out that the 25-volunteer department is running in the black, with no missing funds or malfeasance findings in the audit. The audit shows the district had a $52,913 fund balance on June 30, 2001.
But it may have hit a snag over some accounting issues.
“We’ve had a struggle over the last three to four years finding qualified auditors at a cost we could afford,” said Boyd Johnson, fire chief.
The department lost two longtime volunteers who used to do the books – Ed and Sandy Yilek.
It finally found a new auditor to do an audit spanning two years ending June 30, 2001, an audit that may have found some accounting deficiencies under scrutiny by the Nevada County Attorney’s office.
Supervisor Robin Sutherland said the county is looking into two issues raised in the audit: the alleged lack of an expenditure plan for development mitigation fees, and accounting for a state water resources grant to chop down brush that fuels wildfires.
“We want to ensure any findings are corrected, and any taxpayer dollars are safeguarded,” Sutherland said.
The county sponsored the state grant but is not responsible for its oversight, said Pat Ward, a senior administrative analyst for Nevada County. The county also approves the rate set for the mitigation fee paid by property owners.
Johnson said the district does have a master plan for the district, which was thought to suffice for a capital expenditure plan. The issue never came up until the recent audit. The district used the mitigation fees for part of the costs of three new fire trucks.
Bought a few years ago, they are lighter, faster, and make it up the hills quicker to fight fires. They carry foam retardant that Johnson credits with saving some homes. The district also built a new station on Tyler Foote Road to keep up with growth.
“It’s the first time anybody ever questioned what we were doing,” said Johnson of the capital expenditure plan.
The district is taking steps to properly account for the grant and make other accounting changes. The district has hired a bookkeeper, Catherine Rice, to do just that.
Rice said the audit’s claim that the district did not remain within the budget is really a matter of accounting changes and misunderstanding. The board believes the district was in the black, she said, but the new auditor calculated the entire value of the fire trucks in the annual budget. The trucks are lease-purchased.
Rice is reviewing more than two years of payroll records in response to the audit’s claim that the district didn’t send out payroll withholdings for employees under the wildfire fuels grant.
The district had to pay $176 to the Internal Revenue Service for not properly reporting payroll, in what is described as a minor clerical error which occurred when the office manager was getting up to speed on the job after taking over from a volunteer who became ill.
District board member Martin Light, who ran on issues of accountability last summer, said the district is heading in the right direction.
During a previous board stint three years ago, Light refused to sign checks for the district because of a lack of checks and balances.
Light now likes the fact that the district hired a bookkeeper to establish a fixed assets schedule and to make sure payroll taxes are paid on time.
At January’s fire district meeting, Light asked when financials would be available for board review on an ongoing basis and when the check disbursement register would be available.
Light said he was comfortable with the answers – that the check register would be available at each of the board meetings and that the financials were dependent on the county.
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