Local Fire Chief Probe Continues
Ongoing investigations by the newly staffed Saugatuck Township Fire District Board and Observer Newspapers are uncovering new financial, operational and potential legal problems involving Fire Department Chief Brian Florey.
The Fire Board probe is being led by new government Fire Board appointees Saugatuck Township Clerk Brad Rudich and Saugatuck City Councilwoman Jane Verplank.
Last week the Observer reported on myriad financial, accounting and operational problems at the fire department being investigated by the newly appointed governmental members of the Fire Board.
Now new information is being uncovered that shows Florey appears to have violated various department policies and is at the center of other - and newly reported - alleged problems at the fire department.
These new issues include:
*Verified reports that Florey - who is in his first year serving as chief - has used his department-issued chief’s vehicle and taxpayer-paid gas during the past year for personal travel and use contrary to the department’s own rules and regulations which prohibit the vehicle’s personal use.
The investigation shows Florey, for instance, on various occasions in 2012 picked up his son who lives in South Haven with one of his two former wives, put him in a car seat and drove him home or elsewhere despite the risk the chief could have been called at any moment to the scene of a fire emergency.
Additionally, Florey also reportedly brought his young children on occasion to the fire department and allowed them to play there contrary to township policy as it could have led to potential safety problems and put the children at risk, especially if a fire call arose while they were there.
Insurance companies that hold liability policies for the township and other local governments say if there had been an accident involving Florey’s children while riding in the township vehicle or while they were at the fire department during non-public events, it is likely the insurance policy would have been nullified leaving Florey and Saugatuck Township and its cirizens exposed to possible lawsuit judgments.
Addressing Observer questions about those incidents that were verified by various fire department personnel, South Haven school officials and others, Florey said, “I addressed that (personal use of the township vehicle) with (Former Fire Board Chair) Bill Kaye six months ago to make sure there were no problems. I wanted to make sure there were no problems and I cut back on the vehicle usage.”
Regarding his children, Florey said, “About once or twice in the last six months I had to pick up my child because of a doctor’s appointment or because he was ill. If there was any violation that I am not aware of, they should bring it to the board.”
* In another apparent violation of township fire department policies, Florey also reportedly took personal loans from two full-time department officers who work under him, which is also a violation of state regulations, according to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office. Reports from fire department personnel say the loan amount was approximatley $500 from each man.
Even if the loans were made willingly - or even if lesser amounts were involved - it is a violation of township and state regulations for any person of authority working in a government capacity to do that, say township and state officials.
Florey concedes he did borrow money from his underlings, but said, “It wasn’t $500. I borrowed $5 or $10 here or there. If there are any allegations, I hope they could bring it to the board to address it. In hindsight, I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. It will not happen again.”
* Despite township and city officials voicing publicly their surprise and concern that Florey has overspent the department’s current fiscal year’s budget with only about $20,000 left with more than four months to go and the department now on “emergency financial status” as a result, Florey said, “We have plenty of money for daily business operations and to pay for personnel’s wages.
“That was mischaracterized in the newspaper. You see, for example, just because the fiscal year is 50% completed and you have spent 80% of your budget, it doesn’t mean I am going overboard. It doesn’t mean it cannot be regulated. It means you didn’t wait for the very last day to spend the money,” said Florey.
Despite saying he felt his budget expenditures were appropriate, Florey added, “Next year we are going to change things. Having Peter (Stanislawski, Saugatuck’s finance director who is now overseeing the Fire Board/Fire Department’s budget and expenditures) is going to considerably help out. (Our) purchases are going to spread out throughout the whole year.”
Other issues have surfaced at the fire department that are also now being investigated by the Fire Board officials. They include:
*Reports that fire equipment in need of repair, especially repairs that state and department policies require be done by certified mechanics, are being done in-house by non-certified personnel.
Florey said, “We do have a certified mechanic on staff. (Two officers) are both certified to work on vehicles at the first level and do basic upkeep such as oil changes, change fluids and filter changes.”
Florey did not address whether his in-house “certified” mechanics were trained or certified to handle more complicated vehicle repairs such as brake systems, hydraulics, gears, etc., as required by both state regulations and township insurance policy requirements.
* Reports that several members of the department do not have current CPR cards as required by the state, since many of the personnel’s cards expired in November 2012.
* Reports that two former officers with the department - Mike Block and Linus Starring - were to be paid a $1,000 annual stipend last fall as a bonus for being an officer during that year, but Florey reportedly changed the policy and paid the men only $300 each and split the remaining $1,400 with two other newer officers.
The Fire Board investigators are now looking into the matter to determine why and how this stipend was approved, by whom and whether it is a legally and policy approved expenditure of taxpayer dollars and whether or not Blok and Starring are entitled to additional money.
Regarding his decision to reallocate the stipend payments, Florey said, “I talked to people and nobody could tell me how it was paid in the past. I pay the $2,000, or whatever the stipend is, for what you did or what you are going to do.
“I was following the budget fiscal year and my understanding is that you are paid (the stipend) in advance; if you are no longer an officer here, how can I pay out (the entire stipend to them)?
“I am not here to gyp anybody,” he said. “I am still in the learning process. If there is a better process, I want to do it.”
Florey added that if any township or city officials or members of the public want to talk to him or members of the Fire Board about his work at the department “we are more than willing to meet with them. I want to do what is right for the community and my crew. If I am doing something wrong, I’ll get it changed, but I need to know.”
Next week: More problem issues surface for embattled fire chief and actions of past Fire Board questioned.