Fitchburg city officials investigate fire department slush fund - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Fitchburg city officials investigate fire department slush fund

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FITCHBURG (WKOW) -- Fitchburg city officials say they are investigating the fire department's use of a slush fund to dispose of surplus equipment and earn credit with a Middleton fire apparatus supplier.

Officials say more than $25,000 in transactions with other fire departments have been funneled through the fund during the past decade, with the fund's money controlled by Jefferson Fire and Safety. The fund's existence was first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal.

"It's concerning because a lot of these items are actually tagged, 'Fitchburg Slush Fund," or "Fitchburg Grocery Fund,' " city attorney Mark Sewell tells 27 News. "It seems to be an intentional end-around the city budgeting process."

Sewell says use of the fund in December 2012 to provide parkas to members of Fitchburg's Police and Fire Commission appears to involve ethics violations.

Village of Oregon officials say they raised questions last year about the purchase of a $125 used fire truck valve from Fitchburg when they were instructed to make out a check to Jefferson Fire and Safety as payment for the part.

Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney says a criminal investigation was launched, but no evidence of law-breaking was found. Mahoney and district attorney Ismael Ozanne tell 27 News investigators and Ozanne conferred several times throughout a more than year-long probe, but sheriff's officials made no referral of recommended charges to Ozanne.

Mahoney says the motivation for Fitchburg fire officials to operate outside of the city budget process appeared clear. "I don't recall what the exact statement was, but it was to cut corners," Mahoney tells 27 News.

Fitchburg Fire Chief Randall Pickering tells 27 News most of the surplus items sold over the years attracted no interest when bids were solicited, or when items were posted on the state of Wisconsin's surplus web site.

Pickering says he and other staff have networked with other fire departments to achieve sales and realize some return on disposable gear.

As for routing the sale of city property through an exclusive, private business, Pickering tells 27 News Jefferson Fire and Safety was more equipped than the fire department to test all proposed items for sale to determine operational condition.

Sewell says records show some surplus items were sold at silent auctions, with only fire department personnel participating. Sewell points to records as demonstrating some auction sales brought below-market prices for used gear, such as the $50 purchase of a chain saw. Pickering says the sale in question involved a device which had been "cannibalized" to provide parts and extend the life of other, department equipment.

Sewell says Jefferson Fire and Safety has submitted a fund balance of $4,600 to Fitchburg city officials, and future fire department surplus sales and purchases are to be routed through established, city procedures.

Fitchburg city council finance committee members will review the slush fund practices at a meeting later this month.

 

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