"Paulsell has written his own history," Barnes said. "He has done so many things. He is a man among men."
Barnes, one of the CB radio enthusiasts who helped start the volunteer fire district in 1963, said he counts Paulsell as one of his closest friends.
"I know Steve like no one else knows him," Barnes said. "We've fought fires together, pulled families out of automobiles, seen dead little children. When you go through such terrible stuff, you get to know a guy pretty well. ... It's so easy to throw stones at someone's missteps without looking at 99.9 percent of the accomplishments."
Paulsell, himself, admits he's made mistakes.
He frequently mentions the controversial territorial agreement between the county fire district and the Columbia Fire Department, which created impassioned debate between the agencies because of their reluctance to give up existing service agreements. The agreement, which was adopted in 1997, allows the fire district to maintain its core tax base and avoid overlapping service despite city annexations into the county.
Paulsell also acknowledges that his public fight over a proposed plan in the late-1980s to combine the fire district with the City of Columbia's fire department was one of the biggest stumbles of his career. The public and media reaction to Paulsell's move was mixed.
But Paulsell stands by his most recent controversial decisions.
"I don't regret anything I've done over the past two years," he said.
In 2001, only a month after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the fire district unveiled the $200,375 bronze statue "Perseverance." Seed money for the statue came from the fire district's general revenue fund. Roughly $10,000 in donations chipped the amount owed to sculptor Harry Weber to $190,387, which the district carried as a miscellaneous liability on its books for three years.
Fire district leaders said fundraising would pay for much of the statue's debt. Those activities were suspended, they said, in sensitivity to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A $50,000 certificate of deposit would be used to pay off the debt.
The $190,387 in taxpayer money used for the statue, which had been recorded in fire district audits for years, disappeared from this year's accounting. The statue was written off as an asset instead of a liability, Gordon said.
"The statue was listed as an asset," Gordon said. "How it got there, I don't know."
In response to a Missourian request for information under the state's Open Meetings Law, Sue Miller, an accountant with the Columbia firm of Marberry, Miller & Bales, wrote that the money used for the sculpture had "always been treated as a negative cash item," referring to its designation as a liability for three years.
"For audit purposes the idea of negative cash is not an acceptible (sic) accounting presentation," Miller wrote.
Miller has audited the fire district's books for the last four years. Miller also wrote that the fire district's former bookkeeper, Meinhart, closed out the sculpture fund account on Jan. 13, 2005. The fire district then drew $100,000 in public money to cover the closed account, records obtained by the Missourian show.
"They stopped raising the money after 9/11 because there was a greater need, but I think they should try to start fundraising again," said Murray, the district's former treasurer, who resigned in October. "It's still owed to the fire district's general revenue fund."
The general revenue fund is public money the fire district receives from personal property taxes.
The audit also shows that administrative expenses from last year were $231,000 over final budget projections. Auditors called this an "inadvertent oversight" due to bookkeepers not providing adequate financial information to management.
The end result was the fire district's use of $200,000 in contingency money.