Citizens Concerned With Black Forest Fire Board Spending

Image from the Black Forest Fire, June 2013.

The El Paso County district attorney is deciding whether to investigate the Black Forest Fire Board for money spent on legal fees.

To date, $114,111.05 of the board's budget has been spent on legal expenses, including the independent investigation into the Black Forest Fire.

Gary Watson tells 11 News he and several other residents, including Board Member Rick McMorran, are citing a Colorado statute that says the board cannot spend any more money then was appropriated in the budget.

Watson has filed an affidavit with the DA's office asking to investigate 'suspected malfeasance.'

The Black Forest Fire District budget approved in December allotted exactly $25,750 for legal services. The board has spent $88,361.05 more than that and say they are still expecting more legal bills.

"What will it end up at? $200,000? $250,000? Who knows, that's my money they're spending," said Watson.

11 News sat down with Board Chairman Eddie Bracken. He said the budget line item amounts can always be changed, as long as they stay below the overall approved budget.

The total expense budget for the Black Forest Fire District is nearly $2.3 million.

"Within the overall appropriation, both in revenues and expenses, we can make line item adjustments, moving it from one line item to another," said Bracken.

He said it's legal for the board to do that, like last year during the fire when they needed to spend more money on equipment that was damaged.

Bracken says he finds it odd that board member McMorran supports the suspected malfeasance affidavit.

"He made an accusation that we misappropriated funds and exceeded appropriation levels when in fact we didn't. We appropriated the top line number and moved money around line item by line item. [McMorran] took part in that process last year. If he has a problem with that process, why didn't he mention it last year?" said Bracken.

Bracken also told 11 News he still supports the decision to carry out the independent investigation.

"This district's reputation, the confidence of this district was put at risk because of unsubstantiated allegations," he said.

Board Treasurer Walt Seelye, Fire Chief Bob Harvey and Assistant Chief Jim Rebitski met to see what budget items could be used to pay for the excess in legal fees.

Watson said he's concerned other parts of the district will suffer to make up the costs.

"We could have the same thing we had on June 11 of last year if we don't have the equipment and we don't have the training or personnel," said Watson.

Seelye told 11 News that any adjustments they make will not impact firefighter safety or the services for the community.

He said they plan on making up the money by reducing the number of extra equipment they planned to order, postponing expansion projects and finding better deals on orders that were planned.

Seelye said they also plan to tap into the IT budget item, which currently has $17,841 available.

The board will be voting on a resolution to approve the line item adjustments in their next April meeting.

The DA's office has released a statement about the suspected malfeasance, saying:

"While the statute mandates an investigation whenever an affidavit is presented, an initial review indicates a finding of malfeasance is questionable."