There was tension in the air at the Soldiers Grove Village Board meeting last Thursday, when a group of volunteer firefighters confronted the board over an unpaid bill for mobile radio replacements.
The mood of the meeting surfaced early as the board waded into the usually mundane task of paying the village’s monthly bills.
“Well obviously the fire department bills are in contention here,” village trustee Jerry Moran said at one point. “We need to discuss them (separately).”
Soldiers Grove Village President Laurel Hestetune suggested the board make a motion to pay all of the bills, except the fire department’s bills.
Village trustee Jim Helgerson made the suggested motion. It was seconded by Shayne Chapman and passed by the board.
The very next item on the agenda, as it always appears, was the fire department report, presented by Soldiers Grove Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dave Clason.
“What bill are you refusing to pay there now?” Clason said upon being recognized by Hestetune.
The chief pointed out that some of the bills were for utilities and other standard operating expenses of the department.
Hestetune explained the part of the bill the board had problems with were the D and Z Rescue Emergency Products bills. D and Z is a company located in Soldiers Grove that supplies emergency and rescue equipment. It is owned by Bill Zirk, a Soldiers Grove resident and officer on the fire department. Among other things, D and Z supplied six radios earlier this year as replacements for lost radios at a cost of more than $14,000.
Clason questioned why the village was not paying the D and Z bill.
Uncertain of the situation concerning the six missing fire department mobile radios and their replacements, the village board had requested that Crawford County District Attorney Tim Baxter investigate the situation.
The DA assigned the investigation to Wade Hutchison a Captain in the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department. Hutchison recently completed the investigation and prepared a report. After reading the report, Baxter ordered Hutchison to deliver a copy to the village authorities in Soldiers Grove.
“I don’t understand why you’re not paying it,” Clason said of the D and Z bill. “The investigation is done. It’s been done and it’s over.”
Clason indicated Hutchison’s finding was that there was no wrongdoing.
With tensions rising, Hestetune cautioned against escalating the situation.
“”I don’t like the way this is going,” Hestetune said.
Clason said the cost of the radios was now close to $20,000 because interest was being added monthly to the original unpaid $14,000-plus bill.
Hestetune responded by saying the board had investigated and found the radios could have been purchased at a cheaper price.
Clason doubted the idea the radios found on the internet for $900 would be comparable. Moran explained the radios were being sold by a company in Dubuque and listed for $900.
Hestetune appealed for “everyone to remain as calm as possible.”
Randy Byl, another firefighter, pointed out that the insurance company had sent a check to the village to pay for the replacement radios.
“I’d love to have our attorney here,” Hestetune responded. The village president indicated that the attorney had asked the board not to discuss the situation in open session and to wait until they could have a closed session meeting with him present.
Byl went on to say radios were in use and the fire department was being charged “mega-interest” on the unpaid bill.
“I agree with you,” Hestetune said to Byl. “I see your point.”
Hestetune explained the matter had been turned over to the village’s attorney.
“Is there an allegation of fraud?” one of the firefighters asked.
Meanwhile, Clason, who had been examining an advertisement for the $900 radios found by the village board, noted those radios were analog and the ones the department has are digital. He pointed out that the federal government wanted the department to buy digital radios at this point.
What happened to the missing radios?
According to the explanation presented by Clason and Zirk at the meeting, nine radios disappeared and then two showed up. Then, at some later point another was found in one of the truck seats. Hestetune pointed out this occurred over a period of months.
“We knew they were missing, we just gave people a chance to bring them in,” Clason explained.
“It makes you wonder where they were,” Hestetune said.
Bill Zirk, the owner of D and Z Rescue Emergency Products, pointed out that members of the fire department were the ones to report the radios missing.
“We initiated the investigation, when we found out they were missing,” Zirk said. “We called Wade on Tuesday. We notified them immediately.”
“What really happened with the equipment?” Hestetune questioned.
“We’re concerned with where they went,” Clason answered.
“Down the line, they will turn up,” Hestetune said.
Village trustee Jerry Moran pointed out that the investigation conducted by Hutchison was not closed and that it remained open.
Helgerson agreed with Moran’s point and explained that a theft investigation of anything over $6,000 was not closed until it was resolved.
Hestetune said the bill would be paid, when the board got an opinion from the attorney on how to proceed.
“The question is how bad do you want a fire department,” Josh Byl said.
“That’s the most ridiculous talk I’ve ever heard,” Moran responded.
Clason noted that the fire department had operated for a long time without having any problems.
“We haven’t come close to overdrawing our budget,” Clason said.
In answer to questions about the fire department’s budget, village clerk Tammy Kepler tried to explain how the fire department budget worked within the larger village budget. Later, it was suggested by Hestetune that the fire department meet with the clerk and board members for a more detailed explanation of the entire budget.
In reference to the missing radios, Clason pointed out that other people had access to the unsecured fire station building. He specifically mentioned the campers from the BMW motorcycle rally who were allowed to use the building’s shower facility. The building was left open for 24 hours at that point, according to Clason. This allowed anyone access to it.
Someone pointed out the radios were reported missing in February and the rally was held in May. The firefighters indicated it had taken months for the department to verify the radios were missing.
“The bottom line is that $14,000 in equipment got stolen and we had to turn that in,” Hestetune said at another point.
“Is the village going to stand by the fire department?” Randy Byl asked.
“We’re going to go into closed session to discuss it and then maybe we’ll come out with something,” Hestetune said. “How does the go with you?”
“I guess we don’t have a choice,” Clason responded.
Clason asked the board about getting a recently purchased used fire truck re-lettered.
Village trustee Paul Nicholson informed him the board had said at the last meeting that the department should get prices and bring them to the board.
There was more discussion about four smaller bills owed to D and Z.
Village trustee Jim Helgerson made a motion to pay the small bills and Moran seconded it. The board approved making the payment. Other small, but needed, repairs to the department’s equipment were discussed.
The board told the department to get prices on an antenna for the recently purchased tanker truck and repair a burned-out red light on the rescue truck that contains the Jaws of Life.
“You can shake your heads, but if you were in the same place as us, you’d do the same thing,” Hestetune said in summarizing the situation.
Later following their closed session meeting, the board returned to open session and approved scheduling another closed session meeting to include members of the fire department, board members and village’s attorney for Tuesday, Sept. 10.
An agenda for that meeting posted Monday, Sept. 9 listed the first item as “Possible Adjournment to closed session, pursuant to Wis. Stats. 1985(1)(g), for the purpose of conferring with legal counsel with respect to litigation in which it is or is likely to become involved; fire department related.”