PLAINFIELD – Plainfield Fire Protection District Chief David Riddle said Tuesday that he has told staff to stop buying certain items after he acknowledged the district may have misused public funds on purchases last year.
The action comes after the Edgar County Watchdogs, a group of citizens who investigate governments across the state, revealed Monday that the fire district had, between August 2014 and November 2015, used more than $11,900 on what it deemed questionable purchases made on fire district credit cards. Those items included Christmas gifts, edible arrangements, flowers, massages, food and parties.
“The changes are immediate,” Riddle said. “I’ve told staff that we’re not buying flowers or edible arrangements for immediate family members of those that passed away [among other purchases]. We’re not going to do that stuff anymore.”
Riddle also said he will be more involved with oversight of the district’s Foreign Fire Tax Board, which also was targeted by the watchdog group for spending more than $12,000 on 150 personalized blankets and throw pillows for staff and others in November and December.
Riddle said purchases such as the blankets and pillows, which were paid for by the board, will also stop immediately.
The watchdog group filed Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the information after it received tips that the fire district made some questionable purchases, Edgar County Watchdogs member John Kraft said.
“That’s all we can ask for,” Kraft said about Riddle’s response to the watchdog group’s reports. “Except for maybe reimbursement [to the taxpayers] from whomever was doing the purchasing, we generally ask that they just quit doing it.”
The credit card purchases include more than $1,325 for the annual Turkey Raffle charity auction, $1,300 in Christmas gifts, $1,490 for a retirement party, $724 in edible arrangements, $165 in flowers, $714 for a hog roast, $67.99 for corncob pipes, $75 for Massage Envy massages and $6,045 for food and parties.
Riddle said he agreed with some of the watchdog group’s assessment, noting that flowers and other gifts have often been sent to the loved ones of people who recently died.
“I can make a case that some of these purchases support the fire department,” Riddle said. “But on the other hand, it may not be a good use of taxpayer money.”
The purchases happened under the watch of Riddle and former Chief John Eichelberger. But Riddle said ultimately he takes responsibility.
Riddle became chief about a year ago, but he said he thinks the purchases were part of traditions started decades ago when the district was a volunteer agency.
“It’s not necessarily right or fair,” Riddle said. “But that’s just the way it was. Those habits perhaps just continued on.”
A prime example of those traditions is the Turkey Raffle, which was held Nov. 14 last year.
Riddle said the cost the raffle and prizes was split between the fire district, the tax board and a nonprofit affiliated with the district. Riddle said the district often has bought many of the items, but the nonprofit has reimbursed it.
“The Turkey Raffle goes on,” Riddle said. “The fire department wants to carry on with it. We just need to find a way to do it without us buying.”
Foreign Fire Tax Board
The Foreign Fire Tax Board is made up of seven firefighters, including Riddle. But Riddle doesn’t attend the board’s meetings, adding that the tax board makes its own decisions with the funds it receives from insurance tax collected out of state.
Following the accusations, Riddle said administration will focus more on oversight of the tax board. But he said it is important to remember that the tax board has paid for vital supplies for the district.
“They’re buying front line, good, solid, top-shelf equipment,” Riddle said. “OK, they have done some stuff that’s not right. We’ll put a stop to that stuff, honest to goodness.”