Fire District audit, roads dominate Council meeting

177
A request to remove 203 feet at the end of Edward Adams Road in Fairview Alpha, above, from parish maintenance so property owners could put up a fence was denied.

By Carolyn Roy, carolyn@natchitochestimes.com

Most of the Parish Council meeting Monday was spent talking about roads, the audit report on Fire District No. 1, an executive session and health care premiums.

Pat-Ward Hoover asked for an update on the Legislative Auditor’s investigative report on Fire District No. 1 that was released Sept. 19. The audit cited several findings including paying a board member’s family for remodeling the fire station; paying family members to mow the grass; improperly disposing of surplus property; and failing to track vehicles. Board members could not tell if they were paying insurance premiums on vehicles they owned because there was no inventory of vehicles.

Hoover said she would like to see the board abolished and that the residents in that district deserved a better fire rating than 10, the worst rating, that determines insurance premiums. Parish President Rick Nowlin said the council could address removing some of the board members and that was the only authority the governing body had.

Visitor Chris Posey, a critic of the board and their actions in the past, said he had been “fighting this for two years.” Posey said two of the members, Ricky Sanders and Charles Roge´, were still on the board and activity was status quo. According to the audit, Roge´and two of Sanders’ sons bought district equipment which may have violated ethics laws because they were not advertised for sale to the public. When Ward-Hoover and Chris Paige asked about sanctions for findings in the audit, Assistant District Attorney Shantel Wempren said it was the job of the Sheriff to take the lead to investigate the allegations in the audit.

Sheriff Victor Jones Jr. said Tuesday that he, District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington, Assistant District Attorney Cloyd Benjamin and NPSO Chief Investigator Greg Dunn met at 1 p.m. about the audit and the investigation was in the early stages.

During an interview Tuesday, Nowlin said that in July 2017, he requested the legislative auditor investigate the financial operations of Fire District No. 1 based upon an extensive review of the District records by the former board chairman.    The audit report was issued Sept. 19 and contained a number of violations of state law by certain board members and their family members.  “My office has requested the Office of the District Attorney to review the legislative auditor’s report and to advise of any legal actions that need to be taken by his office,” Nowlin said.

“ In the meantime, my office will work with the Parish Council to obtain the removal of any present board members who may have been involved in any of the illegal activities.  I noted to the Council at the meeting on Oct. 15 that the violations cited in the report date from several years ago and some of the present board members were not involved in them.  “ It is also possible that certain illegal actions were taken without any discussion and approval at a board meeting.  In my opinion, it would be improper to remove all board members without evidence of their individual wrongdoing.  We are continuing to work with the District Attorney to take the appropriate actions.”

Moving to road matters, Nowlin said that engineers are taking soil samples on Hampton Road and will begin installing drainage pipes next week. The project should be complete early in January. As for Payne Subdivision, Nowlin said the fate of the road maintenance project is in the hands of the State Division of Administration. The project cannot be advertised for bids until it gets State approval. The Parish has been waiting since July to get the go-ahead. The council voted to keep two roads in the maintenance system after getting requests to take parts of the roads out.

The first request was to remove 203 feet at the end of Edward Adams Road so property owners could put up a fence. That request was denied.

Also denied was a request to remove one mile of Dubois Road. That request came from ROMartin forester Clint Ailes. The Parish road has washed away and ROMartin built a road nearby to have access to timberland. Ailes asked that the council either repair the road or take it out of the system so ROMartin could repair it. He said landowners could have a personal servitude to access their property if it were removed. Property owner Bertha Crosby said she owned 17 acres near the road and asked that it stay in the Parish maintenance system so she would have access to her property. Paige suggested that ROMartin donate materials and the Parish provide the labor to improve the road. Public Works Director Earl Townsend said that the road was completely washed out and it would take new construction to relocate it. The road was last worked on in 2015 and it washed out in the flooding in March of 2016.

Adrian Knight, who is the wife of a nearby property owner, expressed concern that removing the road would cut the area off from the Lena Water System if it were no longer public. David Dubois said he was strongly opposed to removing it and the Parish should have repaired the road. He said log trucks left ruts so deep that trucks would drag bottom. The motion to remove the road was defeated. Nowlin invited Ailes to meet with him to discuss a potential cooperative endeavor agreement between ROMartin and the Parish to find a way to repair the road.

The council then voted to not add the Marco Road to the maintenance system. There are five homes and farm property on the road that could be potentially added to the Capital Outlay list. Ward-Hoover objected to taking the road in because there are others that should be worked on first.

Parish employees received fairly good news since their health insurance premiums with Blue Cross/Blue Shield will not increase dramatically next year. Human Resources Director Cathy Creamer presented two options. Citing the lowest increase “in a long time,” Creamer said the employee premiums will increase 4 percent from $747.24 per month to $756.30. The premium is guaranteed for one year. The Parish has 127 people on the employee only plan. Of those, 55 are Head Start employees.

The company offered a second option for a 6 percent increase guaranteed for two years. Creamer said that next year’s budget had estimated an increase of 12-18 percent. The discouraging news about the premiums is the high claim history of employees on the plan. Insurance agent Jim Sandifur said that in January, the medical premiums cost $138,000 with claims amounting to $134,000. In June, the medical premiums cost $140,000 with claims amounting to $160,000.

Blue Cross/ Blue Shield spent $792,000 on 14 prescription drugs; one unnamed drug cost $212,000 a year. Sandifur said that he would give the council a report at mid-year about the health insurance costs.