Nov. 11—Jefferson Parish's decentralized approach to providing firefighting services on the West Bank is rife with "persistent and pervasive problems" that often put taxpayer funds at risk, according to a new report from the parish's Office of Inspector General.
Unlike unincorporated areas on the east bank of Jefferson Parish, which have a full-time firefighting force and one volunteer force, fire prevention services in Lafitte, Grand Isle and unincorporated areas on the West Bank are provided by 12 different, non-profit volunteer fire companies.
The report focuses on accounting failures and doesn't make any allegations of criminal intent. But it raises questions as the Jefferson Parish Council considers doing away with the West Bank volunteer fire companies altogether and instead merging its fire districts into one full-time force.
A firm hired by the council to study the feasibility of consolidation, McGrath Consulting Group, is expected to produce a first draft of their recommendations in December, according to Council member Deano Bonano.
The OIG report — titled "Lessons Learned" — summarizes 18 audits or reviews of those West Bank companies over the last decade, which found:
— $8.5 million in funds were misspent on items including bonuses, parties and personal expenditures
— Expenditures and timecards were not approved
— Pay was not properly calculated and/or falsified
— Employees cashed out more leave than earned
— Trucks and vehicles were not properly titled
— Outdated and inaccurate inventory records
— Companies were "Not in Good Standing" with the state of Louisiana.
Altogether, the OIG identified $28 million in questioned costs and funds or other assets that were at-risk for fraud, waste, or abuse by volunteer fire companies.
The report doesn't single out any one company. Instead, according to Inspector General Kim Chatelain, it was aimed at providing a "holistic" view of challenges that have persisted across three different parish presidencies.
"It's not a single problem. It's a pervasive problem that manifests differently in every volunteer fire company," Chatelain said.
Chatelain noted that volunteer fire companies are often governed by boards comprised of firefighters, who "struggle with understanding the business of fire," like how to segregate funds or the importance of hiring an external certified public accountant.
"All of the problems pivot on the fact that these are firemen, not businessmen," she said.
The Parish Council provides the fire companies with roughly $21.6 million each year through millages approved by voters, but their contracts "impose no real parameters or minimum expectations regarding internal controls or fiscal responsibility," Chatelain added.
The report notes that the parish's Office of Fire Services, which is tasked with monitoring the fire companies' performance, lacks authority to enforce the contracts if they fail to perform.
"This means there is no effective or efficient mechanism to ensure compliance by the (volunteer fire companies) or otherwise hold them accountable to their obligations," the report says.
The report offers several solutions for parish officials to consider, including consolidating the fire districts into one new fire district. Given that millages are involved, that would require approval from voters.
As an interim or alternative solution, the report says the Parish Council could solicit proposals from companies interested in competing for one or more contracts to provide fire services currently provided by 12 individual companies.
The Parish Council could also choose to review, re-negotiate, and amend current contracts to incorporate standardized policies for budgeting, purchasing, payroll, timekeeping and more.
The report is available online at www.jpoig.net.
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