Hey Rig Spender

Suburban fire department claims tight finances – but spends freely on pricey fire trucks, meals and various perks.

Tri-State Fire Protection District fire truck / www.tristatefd.com

With a $13.7 million budget, the Tri-State Fire Protection District is one of the largest agencies of its kind in Illinois, providing firefighting and paramedic services to parts of Burr Ridge, Darien, Willowbrook, unincorporated DuPage County and, now, Willow Springs.

For land owners, it's one of the most expensive line items on their property tax bills – and it's a line item that has risen for several years.

A closer look at the department, however, reveals less-than-thrifty spending habits, with tax dollars going to steak and lobster dinners, generous bonuses, new Ford Expeditions and skyrocketing legal bills, among other questionable expenditures, the Better Government Association has found.

These are the latest findings in a months-long investigation that has already led to two other BGA reports on the agency. One exposed the late-career raises that boosted the retirement pay of three high-ranking officials – deals that could cost taxpayers an additional $1.5 million in pension payments. Another report raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving Tri-State Chief Michelle Gibson and Tri-State Trustee Jill Strenzel. The two are long-time domestic partners and formed a civil union last year. As one of three elected board members that oversee the staff, Strenzel has voted on Gibson's promotion, pay and benefits.

Now, the BGA has found that spending in Tri-State's general fund – one of the district's two primary operating funds – exceeded its revenues by more than $2.7 million from 2008, when Gibson became chief, through 2012, according to financial statements obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. General fund expenditures have increased by 24 percent from 2008 to 2012, compared to 2003 to 2007 when expenditures actually went down 2 percent, records show.

Meanwhile the district stands to collect more than $9.7 million this year from property taxes, up from $9.4 million in 2012. A homeowner with a $300,000 house paid $662.70 to Tri-State this year.

The district also collects ambulance fees from $750 to $1,250 a person, plus $15 a mile. In 2008, Tri-State began charging residents and increased non-resident rates, which has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the district's other main fund, the ambulance fund. On average, the district collected $805,770 a year in ambulance service charges from 2008 to 2012 compared to $108,925 a year from 2003 to 2007.

So how is Tri-State spending the money?

The BGA enlisted the pro bono help of Duff & Phelps – a financial advisory firm with a forensic arm – to analyze Tri-State records. Among the findings:

  • The chief makes $137,887 annually, plus more than $8,000 a year in bonuses: $3,000 for having a master's degree; $3,000 for a paramedic license; $1,500 for longevity; and $750 for fire officer III certification. Earlier this year, Gibson cashed in on two years worth of unused sick time for an additional $9,000.
  • Firefighters, engineers, lieutenants and battalion chiefs, who are also eligible for bonuses under their union contract, made an average base salary of $76,600 in 2012, according to payroll records. But they were taking home an average of $110,000 a year, largely due to overtime.
  • Tri-State's legal expenses have soared from about $13,000 a year to more than $100,000 a year, according to legal bills from 2007 to 2012. And they appear to be growing: In Tri-State's latest budget, which was approved Aug. 31, the district set aside $193,500 for accounting and legal services. That includes $30,000 for legal services for the trustees – double the amount in last year's budget.
  • Last summer Tri-State purchased a $220,000 "mini-pumper" fire truck a few months after having bought a similar truck for approximately $147,000, and neither were competitively bid. The chief and deputy chief both drive 2012 Ford Expeditions, which cost about $88,000 and are allowed for "de minimis" personal use. The fire marshal and assistant fire marshal, who conduct building inspections and fire investigations, also have take-home vehicles.
  • The district, which operates its own dispatch center at a time many fire departments are consolidating or outsourcing that function, paid more than $155,000 to phone companies over a recent 12-month period, mostly for data and voice lines that connect Tri-State's four stations to the district server, according to the agency. On average, it spent nearly $13,000 a month, about $1,000 of which went to cell phones. Board President Hamilton "Bo" Gibbons carries a Tri-State cell phone and his charges in 2012 (about $70 a month) were among the highest in the department.
  • Twice the district paid for overnight lodging for a conference at a Lombard hotel located less than 10 miles from Tri-State's headquarters. Those who attended this year enjoyed a $200 dinner, including steak, calamari and tiramisu, at a nearby Harry Caray's. Another dining receipt shows taxpayers picked up a $150 tab for oysters florentine, filet, lobster tail and more at a restaurant in Florida, where the chief and deputy chief visited in 2012 to inspect a new fire apparatus. In total, Tri-State spent more than $10,000 on restaurants from 2008 to 2012, according to receipts and credit card statements.

In emails to the BGA, Gibson said the restaurant bill in Florida was the only meal the two sought reimbursement for during the business trip, and that "expenditures on such food items were very rare." Most of the $2,000 spent each year on dining, she said, is for Tri-State's annual board and administration holiday dinner.

As for the Lombard hotel stays, Gibson said there were "weather concerns" and that such purchases were not typical. She defended other expenses, too, including the fire trucks, which "were purchased for efficiency and longevity," and the Ford Expeditions, which "replaced aging staff cars."

Gibson disputed many of the BGA's findings and said the district's general fund balance in 2012 was about $7.9 million, up 2.2 percent from 2008. However, the numbers that she cited actually represent the district's assets and do not account for its liabilities, which have grown by 60 percent from 2008 to 2012, records show.

Overall, Gibson said "we have effectively managed our costs and revenue. I am very proud to have spent 32 years at Tri-State leading and working with the best and bravest men and women of the Fire and Rescue Service."

Meanwhile, despite the questionable management and spending habits, Tri-State is expanding, recently taking over firefighting and ambulance services for nearby Willow Springs.

A Tri-State press release touts the move, saying it "provides new revenue to Tri-State to help offset the rising costs of services, personnel, and equipment."

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Katie Drews, who can be reached at (312) 821-9027 or kdrews@bettergov.org.