Bombshell allegations of official misconduct hit during Tillamook Fire District’s June 10 meeting. In a meeting room packed with emergency responders and citizens, a career firefighter accused the former fire chief of tampering with the payroll.
Speaking for the Volunteer Firefighter Association at the start of the meeting, Paul Edwards thanked the board of directors for issuing reimbursement checks totaling $11,554 related to volunteer stipend discrepancies found in an audit of fiscal year 2017-2018. However, he said that was just the tip of the iceberg – the volunteers insist on being compensated for discrepancies that they say go back six years.
“The Volunteer Firefighters Association has saved the taxpayers millions of dollars over the years,” Edwards said. “The Fire District board’s demeanor, in our opinion, is that we’re non-appreciated.”
Edwards cited District documents calling for accountability, honesty, being transparent, communication, integrity and professionalism within the agency. He reiterated that the Volunteer Association would not endorse, acknowledge or accept any new fire chief until the stipend issue is resolved. Edwards also responded to advice from board chairwoman suggesting the volunteers and board consult with legal counsel, he said the matter should be resolved in-house rather than at taxpayer expense.
Kris Grimes, Tillamook Volunteer Firefighter Association president, posed two questions to the board of directors: why spend money on hiring a new chief when 42 volunteers have not been compensated for stipend errors, and why not hold more than one meeting monthly to address the urgent problem? Grimes also stated on the Association’s behalf there would be little faith in the board until the matter is resolved.
Audience comments were focused on resolving the matter before it affects the department. Disputing that money is at the heart of the problem, as asserted by former Chairwoman Debra Reeves in her resignation letter. Comments pointed to community and family support for volunteer firefighters who receive little monetary compensation for their service, saying respect, trust and professionalism were the real concerns.
The board discussed looking at volunteer stipend issues going back to 2015, when a new policy went into effect. There was some concern that a tax issue could arise. Vice-Chairman Tim Hamburger noted that the new stipend policy came about due to nationwide issues with the Internal Revenue Service regarding volunteer firefighter reimbursements. Records for volunteer payroll prior to 2015 used a different system, and it was not clear if those records would be accessible.
The board of directors voted unanimously to review records back to the start of the new stipend policy and correct errors to date. Since the meeting, it was determined that volunteer firefighters were owed $18,559 in total for calls in fiscal year 2016-2017 and $2,235 for fiscal year 2018-2019.
Paid staff payroll problems
The focus of the meeting then shifted to issues with career staff payroll discrepancies. Buyback payments for surplus vacation hours valued at time-and-a-half were said to have been made at two-and-a-quarter since prior to 2009 due to a bookkeeping policy, though no documentation of that policy could be found. It appeared time-and-a-half calculations happened when the hours were banked and also when they were bought back by the District.
At the previous meeting, the board unanimously voted in a policy that overtime accruals would continue at time-and-a-half, but time buybacks would be done at straight time. Interim Fire Chief Kamrath advised the board of directors not to take action that would rectify any overpayments to staff firefighters.
Adding to the accounting issue, a review of three years’ worth of time cards showed paid staff earned vacation hours that were somehow deleted, possibly due to caps on time buildups. However, rather than losing hours that were accrued after a cap, firefighters should have been reimbursed for those hours, according to District policy.
Kamrath said legal counsel advised there was a retroactive limitation of two years for addressing wage problems and a year for overtime problems. The board voted unanimously to direct the interim chief to calculate what might be owed to paid staff within the statutes of limitations. A report prepared by Kamrath showed paid staff payroll discrepancies went back at least to 2016.
Fire Marshal Rueben Descloux sought to clarify the overtime/compensatory buyback issue. He said while accruals did happen at time-and-a-half, he disputed that time-and-a-half payouts were made. He said what actually happened was time was not deleted properly when it was used. Descloux said there is a method in place now to do that accurately, but it has not yet been presented to the board.
Board member Eric Swanson said he was troubled that steps for problem resolution weren’t previously followed regarding payroll and stipend problems. He said there is a practice and policy to fix such problems when they arise.
Former chief accused of wrongdoing
During the June 10 meeting, a career firefighter said he was tired of hearing that staff was overpaid, saying they were paid what the former chief felt was deserved. He also told the board of directors that the former chief deleted hours from staff timecards.
“He paid us the same way for 10 years, so we wouldn’t know any different,” the firefighter said. “That started prior to me being hired, so I wouldn’t have known whether I was being paid correctly for my overtime or not … we can’t help how he was paying us. However, he did delete our time off of our timecards.”
The firefighter said the deleted timecard hours were not brought before a board of directors meeting for fear of retaliation, but that some board members were aware of the problem. He said he brought the issue up to Hamburger in personal discussions and spoke with Reeves as well. The firefighter also said those who brought the problem to Adams got no satisfaction.
“That’s why none of us as career staff brought anything forward – because we were afraid we would get fired,” he said. “That’s the truth; that’s what happened in this building.”
Hamburger said board discussions were had around informing staff and volunteers on policies for reporting problems. He said he too accepted blame for failing to get traction on complaints that he brought to the former chief or brought up in board meetings. “If nothing went forward from there, I wasn’t sure where I was to go,” Hamburger said.
Responding to questions regarding an appearance of impropriety, Hamburger emphasized that no funds were missing or misappropriated. He said in the case of the stipend points, they weren’t assigned and paid, and in the paid staff case hours were deleted but they shouldn’t have been. He said the funds didn’t go anywhere – they remained in the budget.
“I understand the frustration with the public that somebody should be held accountable,” he said. “I’m not sure where to go forward with this.”
Previous board discussions raised the question of whether there was a data breach or some manipulation of the payroll system. Having investigated that possibility, Kamrath has said that was not the case. Kamrath declined to comment on the allegations against the former chief.
Fire board chairwoman resigns
The allegations against the former chief followed the sudden resignation of the Tillamook Fire District board of directors’ chairwoman. Reeves had reportedly served on the board since 1991. In her resignation letter, which was read aloud by board Vice-Chairman Tim Hamburger, Reeves wrote that she felt great regret and great relief in withdrawing from the board.
Reeves cited as the reason for her leaving: “the circumstances that have arisen in the past eight months with the unexpected and horrific turn of events starting with the actions of the prior chief” as well as personal attacks on her character from “members of the staff, volunteers and citizens of Tillamook.”
“The entire District has gone through an upheaval of intense emotion and anxiety since last October and has now taken a turn for the worse as many people affiliated with the District have set their sights on money,” Reeves wrote. “My belief is that once a person moves from offering their services as a volunteer to the community to what they can financially obtain from this service, they no longer have the correct vision of what a volunteer does and is.”
Adams resigned from the District in a letter that was sent to the board of directors in October of 2018. Adams had served the District since 1975. Rumors have swirled around the circumstances of his retirement.
Reeves wrote that as this “sad turn of events” happened, District officials tried to move forward by hiring an interim chief to assist with operations. She wrote that as more difficulties arose with audit issues, the board tried to resolve what it could by making the best decisions for the future of Tillamook Fire District.
“Now, as this whole fiasco moves into an issue of money and those who feel cheated by past practices, I can no longer be a part of this,” Reeves wrote. “My 30 years of volunteer service to the District has been based on respect, loyalty and a desire to help my community. I no longer feel this way after the personal attacks upon me as one member of a board of five.”
Allen Burris was appointed to fill Reeves’ vacant board seat. Burris campaigned for a position on the board but was defeated by incumbent Eric Swanson during the May 2019 elections.