Liberty Volunteer Fire District Board working to unravel ongoing issues

LIBERTY VFD BOARD MEMBERS Tony Roy, Chair Mike Engels, Phillip Canterbury, and John Bottoms.

Story by ADRIANNE WALLINE CAMPBELL 

Note: On Nov. 22, 2023, the Herald-Breeze ran a press release from the WCSO Public Information Officer:

“Walton County Fire Rescue to assume command of fire operations in Liberty Volunteer Fire District 

“On Saturday morning (Nov. 18) Walton County Sheriff’s Office was informed of a stop work order issued to Liberty Volunteer Fire District by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

This order was issued for failure to secure payment of workers’ compensation and requires Liberty Volunteers Fire District to immediately discontinue day-to-day operations until a time they can gain compliance.

In the interim, Walton County Fire Rescue will assume all fire and medical operations to ensure all residents and visitors who reside in Liberty Fire jurisdiction receive professional and prompt service if the need arises. 

Walton County Fire Rescue has moved personnel and apparatus to the Liberty Volunteer Fire Station located on Highway 90 West in DeFuniak Springs.

Our agency is working with Liberty Volunteer Fire to assist in any way possible as they plan a way forward.

We want to assure all Liberty residents; we remain committed to making sure you receive the high level of fire and medical services you deserve.

Any questions regarding the stop work order should be directed to the State Fire Marshal’s Office out of Tallahassee.” [End of press release] 

The Liberty Volunteer Fire District held its regular board meeting at the Liberty Community Center on Dec. 14, 2023, to discuss the ongoing issues with the OPPAGA (Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability) report. From the OPPAGA website: 

It is a research arm of the Florida Legislature. OPPAGA was created by the Legislature in 1994 to help improve the performance and accountability of state government. OPPAGA provides data, evaluative research, and objective analyses to assist legislative budget and policy deliberations. OPPAGA conducts research as directed by state law, the presiding officers, or the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee. 

OPPAGA provides a variety of research services: 

• Performance evaluations and policy reviews of government programs

• Research and technical assistance to legislators and legislative committees

• Government Program Summaries (GPS), an electronic encyclopedia containing descriptive and evaluative information on all major state programs

• Policy Notes, a weekly electronic newsletter of policy research of interest to Florida policymakers

OPPAGA’s research is guided by The Program Evaluation Standards, 3rdEdition. The Standards address Utility, Feasibility, Propriety, Accuracy, Evaluation, and Accountability. OPPAGA uses the Standards to ensure the quality, usefulness, and timeliness of all published products.

Board Chair Mike Engel presided, with one board member absent, John Hinson. Engel said that Hinson had closed out a bank account without board approval and the money is missing and he has been communicating with the individuals that did the OPPAGA report. Back in October, he was aware that there was a hearing but neglected to share any information with the board. It appears that OPPAGA was communicating with only one person for information. The rest of the board were not aware there was an audit going on until it was completed. 

At the OPPAGA hearing, the Liberty Fire Board presented a 52-page document that line by line, answered as many questions as they could. There were a few that could not be answered because they could not get into the fire station to get the information. 

For the past year, after the former chairman resigned his position, they were not able to find a replacement to fill his seat. 

It was alleged that Hinson turned the fire district over to the sheriff’s department without board approval, even though there were other options. Argyle VFD reportedly could have absorbed the volunteers while this was going on. 

As a result, Walton County Fire Rescue is servicing the Liberty area. Engel was nominated and approved to be a member and subsequently chairman of the board on Nov. 21, 2023. 

The next task for the board is to reinstate Workers Compensation. Hinson reportedly had said in the past that he would not sign any checks. It was said that the League of Cities misfiled something on a website and put in the wrong information. It took two weeks to figure out what the problem was before the new carrier could pick them up. It has currently been submitted to the underwriter and they have the funds necessary to pay the bill. Because the policy was allowed to lapse, there is a penalty that must be paid. They will be able to discontinue the stop work order when they provide proof of insurance and pay the fine. Currently, they cannot even run the Christmas parade, and many have inquired about when that would be. They cannot show up on the property and do any work, including sweeping the parking area. 

Concerning Hinson, Attorney Rene Youell said that it would be up to the State Attorney or Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to look into his activities, and determine what, if any, action should be taken. 

ATTENDEES at Liberty VFD Dec. 14 meeting.

Engels said the more he has looked into it, the more he sees things that were done. There are many rumors that have been going on. The Stop Work Order states that they are not allowed to conduct any business or do any work there. No one has been issued a No Trespass warning. They need to get into the office to get information to answer questions from the OPPAGA report, which is not prohibited, as long as they are not working. The district covers 89 sq. miles up to the south border of Paxton and south to U.S. 90. 

Because of the issues with Ameris Bank and the missing money from the general fund, ($4681.10) and the building impact fund ($4379.41) this leaves a balance of zero. The board opened a new account at Truist Bank, and currently have about $30,000 in that account. The question was asked how one person could take money out of an account. The response was that the bank only requires one signature, though the board requires two. Accordingly, the individual whose name was on the signature card was able to withdraw funds. The board tried to change that policy at the bank but were not able to without Hinson’s signature. They then opened an account at another bank. They are not certain where the missing money went, but they are investigating it. The bank would have a record of the transactions, which Youell is also investigating. 

The current bank statement says there should be $4,854.10 but the balance is zero and it is not known where the money went. Independent contractors have been furloughed since November and have not been paid. According to the current CHELCO bill, last month was $132, this month jumped to $556 for the south station on U.S. 90. Youell has recommended that they not pay it. 

The total expense for insurance and bonds is $52,000. Workers Comp through Coggins is $28,982. Previously, through Florida League of Cities, it was about $32,000. The amount fluctuates. Workers Comp can be paid in increments beginning with 50%, which is $14,464. They do not charge interest.

It was asked how they can fund everything with the $75 per house tax as the City of DeFuniak Springs does. The response is because the city also gets funds from other sources such as the general fund. It was asked why the county is denying to pay the funds this year of $125,000 and the response is because of the OPPAGA report. The county is not manning the central station, and Liberty did not enter into any agreement for them to take over the service and have requested to see the agreement. Because the board did not make any agreement with the county, such agreement is allegedly not binding. 

Attorney Youell told the group that there is an order from Jimmy Patronis, Florida Chief Financial Officer, State Fire Marshal, and member of the Florida Cabinet, that issued a Stop Work Order based on the Workers Comp issue. She said, “We don’t know yet why the sheriff is there, or under what authority, but we are working on that.” 

Engels said that they have to pay for the Workers Comp, pay the fine, provide them with a receipt, and then they will do an audit and determine how much more the fine will be. The minimum is $1,000. 

Youell continued that, “after listening to the OPPAGA report, they are leaning toward shutting Liberty down. So, it’s very important that all the requirements be done quickly as they are meeting again in January at which time they will vote whether to recommend to the State Legislature whether to dissolve both Liberty and Argyle. The OPPAGA report was not flattering, the gentleman who was there to defend both districts did a good job, however there were some misrepresentations that need to be addressed through people who were witnesses at the time. Particularly those that were misleading to the committee that Liberty does not have an ambulance service and the majority of the calls placed are for medical assistance. That’s not in Liberty’s purview though and they do show up for assistance to medical.”

 Youell thought that was misleading that they did not show up for medical even though that is not a part of the duties. Getting Workers Comp done is primary. Youell is in the process of requesting the public records regarding the sheriff’s department and Hinson and any other records between the sheriff and anyone in the district for the past year. That might give clarification as to what authority the sheriff has or Walton County Fire Rescue has as to why they are entering the buildings because they are technically private property, owned by the Liberty Fire District. Her understanding is that their function should have provided coverage for the district, not to take over, which is what they have done. Also, if there is anyone who did get any of the eight contractor bags of garbage that were set out by the road next to District 7, if anyone happened to examine them to see if there were any public records within, that is very important to know. 

Youell said, “And Chairman, if you do go in, please check to see if there are any public records that are still intact.” 

Engels responded that he wants someone to go with him when he goes there so that they can satisfy all the requirements of OPPAGA and the Workers Comp. 

Youell said, “If you are not able to overcome OPPAGA’s attack upon you, I don’t want to waste the district’s money, your money is too valuable, so I do want to limit my services from a standpoint of keeping your costs down as much as possible, so the funds are being directed toward what the district and what is needed and not just for legal services. Because this can get out of hand quickly. I am here to help you in any way I can and am very concerned about what I am hearing and as an attorney, I can tell you, it’s very difficult to prove things. I am very interested to find out what happened with your bank account.”

 It is her understanding that if OPPAGA decides Liberty should be dissolved, the question then goes to the legislature for a vote. Walton County reportedly has a higher dissolution rate than any other county. There is a reportedly a move to dissolve all the special districts in Florida, those who are volunteers. The OPPAGA committee is fairly new and has been given broad authority to investigate and ask questions. 

Youell said, “I am concerned that no one on the Liberty board had any knowledge of what was going on or the questions that were being asked. Once we’ve established that Mr. Hinson was the information contact that was being used, then we can challenge some of the findings. Because of the time constraints, it will be very difficult.”

Engels said, “they answered about 80% of every item that they faulted us on and showed that they were provided incorrect information. The County Fire Chief made a statement that Liberty does not enter any burning facilities, that they stand outside and watch it burn. Which is totally false. We have documentation that shows that every time there’s a call you have to write a response. We have that information that yes, we enter buildings to search for people trapped inside.” 

Youell said that “one major issue that OPPAGA had was the fact that they haven’t been able to fill that one position on the board. We all know why that is, but they don’t really care why, they just know the fact that it is. From their standpoint, it’s my understanding, their thought process is, you guys can’t handle your business, so the state is going to have to do something about it. Everyone in this room knows that it goes back to one individual’s alleged actions, so as citizens we know it isn’t the fault of the board as a whole, it’s the fault of one individual, and that one individual should be held accountable. The suggestion is that you encourage your citizens to contact their legislators and the individuals on this committee and let it be known what their opinion is because their entire premise for this investigation was public safety of the constituents within these communities.” 

She also said that, “on the OPPAGA video, one side was given about 50 minutes, and you guys were only given about 10.” 

It was asked about Argyle Volunteer Fire District, and Youell responded, “they allegedly didn’t have certified fire fighters, even though Chief Day had stacks and stacks of verification. Apparently there’s been a lack of communication between OPPAGA and the Fire Marshal’s office, which for lack of a better word, [is] a witch hunt.”

The Herald – Breeze contacted John Hinson for comment. His written response was “The bank is mailing the check to John Bottoms at Liberty Fire address per Bank. I did not go up there and I did not take no money. They are lying to make me look bad, and I have all the paperwork to prove they are lying. And the budget that they tried [to] past is illegal.”

Liberty VFD have been working on their website, https://libertyfire911.com/

The next meeting was set to be on Dec. 27, 2023, at 7 p.m., at the Liberty Community Center at 1511 County Highway 1084, DeFuniak Springs, FL 32433.