State audit recommends the Lone Peak Fire Department improve its financial policies

Lone Peak Public Safety District is changing its financial policies after an audit by the state of Utah found incidents that increased the risk of public funds being misused, including vehicles being sold without proper documentation.  

The Office of the State Auditor conducted the investigation into the district — which covers firefighting operations in Alpine, Highland and Cedar Hills — after receiving complaints through a hotline, and issued recommendations on Tuesday. 

The audit investigated only the submitted complaints, which occurred between July 2013 to March 2017, and found that the district didn’t keep enough documentation to ensure that transactions involving vehicles and credit cards were above board.

The fire department sold an unneeded vehicle to an employee in August 2013, according to the audit. A policy requires that any property be sold through a public auction. The department said it had posted the vehicle to an online classifieds board, as policy requires, but didn’t keep evidence of the post or any competitive bids from the public.

And in March 2014, the department bought a vehicle from the fire chief. He had purchased the vehicle six months earlier, at the same time the department had acquired a new vehicle at an auction. The new vehicle “did not meet their needs,” the audit stated, so the department sold it and bought the fire chief‘s vehicle, for the same amount the chief had initially paid for it.

The department didn’t keep documentation of either the sale being authorized or ”evidence that the [Lone Peak Fire Department] had made efforts to comparison shop or verify that the price paid for the vehicle was competitive,” the audit stated.

The audit found that the district’s board doesn’t have a policy that governs credit card use specifically enough, nor is there an independent review of the treasurer’s credit card purchases.

Auditors recommended that the district replace credit cards with purchase cards, and implement more specific policies regarding how funds are used — for example, limits on how much should be spent on meals and how gift cards are distributed — as well as how documentation is kept.

Employees had used the credit cards to purchase gift cards for incentives and retirement gifts. The audit recommended that practice be eliminated because gift cards are easily converted to cash, increasing the risk of misappropriation of funds.

Although several transactions appeared “reasonable” based on vendor and price, the audit stated, there wasn’t enough documentation for auditors to confirm all of the purchases were proper and approved. 

Lax enforcement of policies risked creating an environment in which employees believe ”rules don’t matter,” the audit stated, citing an incident of an employee being investigated for misusing public funds. The employee was demoted, according to the audit, but given a “significant” promotion a short time later.

Employees of the fire department have been allowed to work on personal matters — a practice common among fire departments, the audit stated. But in one case, an employee of the Lone Peak Fire Department worked on a personal, for-profit business while on-duty.

Auditors suggested employees be allowed some leeway for personal affairs on long shifts, but that the district should exercise caution, ”to avoid the perception that employees are able to benefit improperly while on duty.” 

The audit also suggested the district stop deducting money from employee paychecks for the Lone Peak Fire Association, which is managed by employees but not overseen by the district.

Sheldon Wimmer, the chairman of the Lone Peak Public Safety District Board, reviewed the audit and announced that the district has agreed to follow the recommendation, and has asked for any model policies the district could use to format its own.

Because it wasn’t a routine audit, there is no formal timeline for the recommendations to be implemented, confirmed Office of the State Auditor spokeswoman Nicole Toomey Davis. But Wimmer wrote: ”Implementation has already begun.”