Poor audits, lack of documents leads to takeover of nonprofit Gramercy Volunteer Fire Department _lowres

Advocate staff photo by David J. Mitchell -- A new audit revealed book-keeping and financial issues within the Gramercy Volunteer Fire Department about a month after the St. James Parish Council took away firefighting responsibility from the nonprofit organization and seized controlled of its public assets, including this fire station in Gramercy on River Road, seen here Monday. The St. James Volunteer Fire Department provides fire protection for the town of Gramercy.

Financial and bookkeeping troubles detailed in an audit of the Gramercy Volunteer Fire Department were among the problems that led St. James Parish and Gramercy town officials last year to seize all public assets from the nonprofit group, ending its ability to fight fires.

The 2014 annual audit cites the nonprofit for repeatedly filing its financial reports late and failing to reconcile bank records to catch discrepancies, pay invoices, keep minutes of its board meetings and take a regular tally of departmental assets.

Also, in 2014 the nonprofit, which received parish tax dollars through 2013, paid to insure two fire trucks it no longer controlled but failed to insure a truck it did control, the audit says.

As happens with other rural, volunteer fire departments in Louisiana, Gramercy Volunteer Fire is a nonprofit entity separate from the parish and the town of Gramercy but received parish revenue to support its firefighting mission, though the firefighters were volunteers.

Made public earlier this month, the audit — conducted for the fire department by the Baton Rouge accounting firm Postlethwaite & Netterville — caps a year of turmoil amid a battle for control of the department that began with the new term of Mayor Steve Nosacka in 2015.

“The Gramercy Volunteer Fire Department’s absence of transparency and accountability for public funds are the reasons why they no longer serve the town of Gramercy,” Nosacka said.

The department also was not turning over records needed for the town fire insurance rating review last year through the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana, he said.

In June, the town sued the department and Chief Alan Berthelot to enforce a public records request for inventory, property and membership records, keys to the department’s two fire houses and the whereabouts of a 44-year-old fire truck.

Then in October, the town and the parish sued the department to have a court declare all its property public, force it be handed over and block the department’s officers from using the department’s trucks, buildings, cash and all other equipment.

Judge Jason Verdigets, of the 23rd Judicial District Court, granted this order Dec. 2, nearly a month after the Parish Council voted to incorporate the volunteer fire department’s service area around Gramercy into the service area of the St. James Volunteer Fire Department. That department had been formed from the consolidation of other volunteer departments on the parish’s east bank.

Berthelot, chief of the old Gramercy department, said the moves have essentially shut down the nonprofit. He said he believes the parish made much of the bookkeeping issues in a bid to take over the department.

He said, for example, the department may not have had minutes because the nonprofit’s board members did not always attend the meetings. As volunteers, he said, he could not force them to show up.

Berthelot, who is a Gramercy police officer for his day job, said he feels the push to end the volunteer department was a show of disrespect after his 23 years as a volunteer.

“None of them (the parish and town officials) are volunteer firefighters. None of them devote their time to helping others, but all they want to do is point fingers as soon as you can’t do this or that,” he said.

He said he has doubts the new combined St. James Volunteer Fire Department has enough volunteer firefighters to sufficiently protect the broader coverage area with the addition of Gramercy.

Through 2013, the nonprofit had directly received a portion of a parishwide property tax set aside for fire protection each year. The parish gave the nonprofit $15,424 in 2013.

But Brandon Keller, parish government spokesman, said the parish stopped providing the nonprofit its share of the funds after 2013 due to bookkeeping and financial monitoring problems but allowed the department to invoice expenses, which the parish paid directly. He said this method allowed the parish to better protect public funds.

Since the lawsuits, the parish has control of all major public assets and property, including the department’s fire stations and trucks, said Eric Deroche, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

The 2014 audit says the department had $240,471 in cash and investments and $911,452 in fixed assets on Dec. 31, 2014.

Deroche said the old fire truck brought up in the Gramercy suit — the 1971 truck was purchased from the Raceland Fire Department in 1991 for $42,500 — had been damaged in an electrical fire and the department received an insurance settlement.

Deroche said that while the parish will control the department’s funds, the court froze the nonprofit’s accounts until its opportunity to appeal the court decisions end this month. He added the nonprofit has not turned over training and other records but believes those records probably don’t exist.

“I don’t think they ever had it,” he said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.