Florida Keys News
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
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Ex-fire dept.'s costs pile up

KEY LARGO -- The Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department owes its attorney about $47,000. It is also carrying monthly expenses for vehicle insurance and accounting fees.

The department no longer acts as Key Largo's fire department. In May, its contract with the Key Largo Fire-EMS District was severed by the district's elected board. The district taxes residents and uses the funds to contract with fire and ambulance services.

Documents obtained by the Free Press show the former department is entertaining the possibility of establishing a training facility.

The department's coffers are made up of grant money and donations given to the department from the public in return for fire services. Since May, the department has closed its books to the Free Press and the fire district, who have pressed to show where the money going. A Morgan Stanley basic securities account indicates the department has $62,000. The Free Press was told by officials in May that the department had about $130,000 in total savings.

In February, the former department retained Tavernier attorney Russ Yagel to help it fight to save its contract, which was on the verge of termination. At the time, the department was served by attorney Andy Tobin, who was working pro bono.

At a February meeting, Tobin warned that Yagel's fee could be costly. He reminded the department that it paid Yagel $11,000 for a previous audit defense, which did not require legal briefs, motions or court appearances. In 2009, the results of a critical forensic audit prompted a State Attorney's Office investigation.

Tobin said hiring an attorney was not necessary to deal with aggressive district board members.

"You're not being sued," Tobin said at the time. "... You're being questioned and criticized."

Still, the department board opted to retain Yagel, effectively suspending its relationship with Tobin.

According to documents obtained by the Free Press, Yagel's law firm is owed $47,106.29. His office has billed 118.9 hours through Sept. 31. Yagel also attended several fire department and district board meetings for a flat fee of $400. His bill also includes a six-minute phone call with Frank Conklin, the department's president. That call cost the department $39.50.

Other documents show that the former department held meetings in October and November. According to notes taken by secretary Kandy Moore, the department agreed to set aside money for six months of expenses, which would be about $15,000. The board also agreed to try to pay Yagel $10,000 of the money it owes. The department's profit-and-loss sheet ending Nov. 13 shows a $10,875 legal expense.

The fire district recently gave its attorney, Theron Simmons, authority to sue the former department to seize its funds and to hand over to the newly-created Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department. The action came after a breakdown in communication between the two parties. But to avoid the expense of legal action, the district appointed board member Jennifer Miller to serve as a liaison to the former department. Miller was one of two board members to vote against terminating the contract.

jgore@keysnews.com

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