Embattled Texas Fire Chief Retires Amid Controversy

The chief of the Montana Vista Fire Rescue, who is under criminal investigation by the Sheriff's Office, has retired from the volunteer fire department in far East El Paso County.

Robert Ostrenga, who resigned from the El Paso County Emergency Services District No. 2 board of commissioners in May, has submitted his retirement from the Montana Vista fire department after 25 years of service.

Ostrenga also recently retired as deputy chief of police at Fort Bliss, where he worked as a civilian for more than 31 years.

"I'm stepping down after my election term expires in November," Ostrenga said about his time with the volunteer fire station at Montana Vista.

Ostrenga added that his retirement is not connected to the investigation over the alleged unauthorized sale of a fire department pickup truck he bought and returned when questions into the purchase arose.

Ostrenga allegedly authorized several thousand dollars of repairs and improvements on the truck using fire station funds before taking possession of it, according to documents obtained by the El Paso Times. Ostrenga maintains that the truck still belonged to the fire station when the repairs were made, though he had already written a $2,500 check for its purchase.

The case has been forwarded to the District Attorney's Office, which can present it to a grand jury for possible prosecution.

Pensions, perception and mudslinging

"I've been planning this for years,"

Ostrenga said, adding that he plans to travel and spend time with his horses and his family after retirement. "One had nothing to do with the other."

The Emergency Services District No. 2 board of commissioners accepted Ostrenga's retirement on June 25, according to meeting minutes. The ESD is one of two in the county that levies taxes on county property owners and oversees the volunteer fire departments' budgets. The ESDs essentially contract the individual fire stations for emergency services.

Ostrenga's retirement makes him eligible to receive pension benefits from the Texas Emergency Services Retirement System, which is available to volunteer firefighters from counties and departments that pay into the retirement fund, officials said.

According to the Office of the Firefighters Pension Commission, a member is eligible for a retirement of six times the average monthly contribution -- a minimum of $36 for any department participating in the pension system -- at the age of 55 with 10 years of service. At that rate, a member is eligible for about $216 a month.

By statute, a person who applies for retirement under the system no longer earns pension credit if they continue to volunteer. The statute doesn't make mention of any disqualification of benefits to members who are under investigation, indictment or conviction of a crime with the exception of someone having caused the death of a member or annuity recipient.

Ostrenga acknowledges his retirement comes at a questionable time, but maintains timing is just a coincidence. He said some people who disagree with his way of running the station have engaged in "mudslinging" without knowing how the station's or ESD's finances work.

"There's transparency, every receipt is turned in and we are audited annually by a CPA," he said, blaming "disgruntled" coworkers for raising issues he says don't exist.

Others under fire

Ostrenga's administrative assistant and neighbor, Wendy Younger, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter and medic, has also recently come under fire.

Several members of the Montana Vista Fire Rescue petitioned to have Younger removed from office during a general membership meeting of the fire station staff and volunteers on July 18. Two-thirds of the voting membership present at the station's next meeting will have to vote to oust her. No date for the next meeting has been set.

Younger, who has served as a volunteer for more than 20 years, said she recently stepped down as captain of the station amid the controversy. She declined to provide details and said only that there has long been "different opinions on how we handle people" at the fire station.

The petition doesn't state any reasons why Younger should be removed from office.

"For 20 years I've been the No. 1 responder and have run more calls than anyone," Younger said. "I take care of the station and everything involved with it."

A similar petition has been circulating to oust Ostrenga, though it hasn't officially been presented at a station membership meeting, according to documents obtained by the Times.

County Judge Veronica Escobar, who has been working to overhaul the Emergency Services Districts, said the ESDs and the individual fire stations need more accountability and oversight.

Escobar said she has received numerous complaints from the volunteers within the fire stations and the districts, as well as from the community they serve.

"ESDs need to have greater oversight and accountability when it comes to the volunteer fire departments," Escobar said. "Otherwise, we are not guarding against the misuse of public funds."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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