Florida Keys News
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Department stonewalls funds request

KEY LARGO -- Recent attempts by the Free Press to obtain financial reports from the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department have so far proven unsuccessful.

The department is a 501c3 nonprofit that is contracted by the Key Largo Fire-EMS District to provide services to the area. The fire department turns over financial reports to the district that include how taxpayer dollars are spent.

At a recent Fire-EMS District meeting, board member Bob Thomas questioned some of the fire chief's expenses, including about $425 spent in December from local restaurants. The department's clerk, Kandy Moore, said the chief has an expense account of about $1,000 per month.

When questioned by district officials about the spending, Fire Chief Sergio Garcia said he was willing to open up his financial information for review. He also stressed that the expense account includes only money raised directly by the department through fundraisers and not taxpayer money paid to the department by district.

At the meeting, Thomas criticized some of Garcia's expenses, and the chief acknowledged it was possible he may have purchased meals for his firefighters the day of the chief's January election using his account card. Garcia defeated challenger Mike Jenkins through a secret ballot.

Garcia acknowledged that he occasionally buys meals for his firefighters using the account card.

Money spent by the department using the fire chief's account or the corporate account is generated by fundraisers and does not come from taxpayer dollars, district accountant Jennifer Zimmer confirmed.

To examine the chief's spending since January 2012, the Free Press made an initial request to Moore in writing Jan. 18 with follow-up requests in writing and over the phone. By press time Monday, Jan. 28, documents had not yet been released.

Moore last week told the newspaper that the information could be retrieved from the department's accountant.

But Sandra Haab, of Keys Accounting Tax Service, declined to speak to the Free Press about the matter. She said she would not release any records without direction from the fire department's leadership. Haab prepares monthly reports for the department on financial expenses.

Frank Conklin, president of the fire department's board, refused the newspaper's request for the financial records last Friday. He did not respond to written requests but was reached by phone.

"We can't just open up the books to you," he said. "This information has already been put out there. We can't just go back."

Conklin questioned the newspaper's intentions in requesting the information, adding that he was worried its interpretation of the information could reflect poorly on the department.

Conklin, however, said he would take the matter to his board of directors.

Reached late Friday, the department's pro bono attorney, Andy Tobin, acknowledged that the department's financial records are public information.

Robert Rivas, a Tallahassee-based public records attorney, also confirmed the information being sought should be available for public scrutiny.

jgore@keysnews.com

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