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Monday, February 11, 2013

State to Audit Cal Fire Secret Training Fund

  State officials said they plan to conduct an audit of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection finances in the wake of allegations the agency had set up a $3.6 secret fund in 2005.
The state Department of Finance and Joint Legislative Audit Committee will be looking into how Cal Fire’s wildland fire investigation training fund was set up and how the money in the account was spent, said Richard Stapler, a spokesman for state Natural Resources Agency.
Earlier this week state legislative Republicans had called for the audit after an investigation found Cal Fire was sending money from court settlements into an account held by the California District Attorney’s Association. The letter sent to the governor also called for a repeal of a controversial new state fire fee and to return all money collected back to property owners.
“Certainly we need to shine a light on this situation,” said Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Eldorado Hills, said Friday the fund set up by Cal Fire. He joined 24 other Republican state legislators asking Gov. Jerry Brown to investigate the fund.
Gaines said the fund was secret and illegal because the money from Cal Fire court settlements wasn’t returned to the state general fund.
Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman, said Friday the fund was neither illegal nor secret. She said the fund was set up as a “settlement tool” in cases where the state was trying to recover the cost of fighting fires started through negligence.
Defendants in court cases could write a check to the wildland fire investigation training as a business expense, Upton said.
She said a total of $3.6 million was deposited into the account from 2005 to July 2012 when the account was frozen. About $2.8 million from the account was spent on training and equipment for fire investigators, leaving $800,000 currently in the fund, Upton said.
The agency conducted an internal audit of the fund and posted it on the state’s website in 2009, she said.
“We stand by the intent of this fund, and it’s been an invaluable tool,” Upton said.
However, that 2009 audit found several irregularities and made numerous findings, including that state purchasing guidelines were not followed on several occasions.
The audit also found that travel expense claims were not properly completed, the state was overcharged for lodging during employee training, training records were not properly maintained and that Cal Fire attended training out of state that was not approved.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said Cal Fire appeared to be working outside state laws to set up funds and spending that money without the proper approval.
“That’s not the way it works in state government,” Nielsen said. “This is a disgrace.”
In their letter, the legislators also asked Gov. Jerry Brown to repeal the State Responsibility Area fire fee and return money collected back to taxpayers. Gaines sponsored a bill last year to repeal the bill, which is expected to raise $89 million this year.
The state began collecting a fee on rural property owners to pay for state fire prevention programs. The fee is $150, or $115 if the property is in a fire protection district.
Richard Lambdin of Red Bluff said he grudgingly paid the $115 fee back in December. He said he was further angered when he read the state was holding money in a special fund.
“Maybe they’re hiding that money that I sent them,” Lambdin said.
Gaines said it was worrisome that the news of the Cal Fire fund comes within a year of similar news out of the state parks department. While the state was planning to close numerous parks statewide last year, parks officials revealed they had more than $53 million in unallocated funds for many years.
That news followed reports that several officials at the parks department headquarters in Sacramento offered select employees $271,000 in vacation buyouts.
“My concern that it is a trend and that if we’re seeing it in a couple departments, how widespread is it in state government?” Gaines said.
Original story here

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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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