Despite years of audits and prosecutions, financial people in volunteer fire companies continue to steal from their fire companies, according to New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
After decades of fire companies being left alone by Albany, there have been some legal changes. Those changes range from requiring public budget sessions to allowing DiNapoli's auditors to look at the books of fire companies.
The Comptroller says it is not unusual to find the treasurer or the person in charge of cash keeping some.
Most recently, the treasurer of a Steuben County fire company pleaded guilty to stealing $8,500 and faces significant jail time as well as the requirement to pay back all of the money. Two days earlier, another Hudson Valley fire company treasurer admitted stealing nearly $6 million.
"Many of the fire companies, even if they are covering a small area, may spend an awful lot of money these days," he said. "Fire equipment is not cheap. Maintaining a fire house is not inexpensive. So you're talking about some big dollars and we need to treat the fire districts, the fire companies, the fire boards as an extension of government, cause that's what they are."
DiNapoli admits the job carries temptations.
"Sometimes it's very tempting. If you're paying the bills for the fire company, then you pay your American Express bill as well," he said. "But we're seeing it happen time and again. People are getting caught. They are paying big penalties. Some people are going to jail. We're going to continue to be vigilant until the message gets out there. You should not be stealing from public resources. You should not be stealing taxpayer money. If you do, you're going to get caught."
DiNapoli says in the last six years, his auditors and investigations have led to 140 arrests and $37 million in restitution.
The comptroller says more and more fire companies are coming to his office to ask for training on how they should be keeping their books and watching the money.
"We've had more requests for training by the fire associations that are out there, on a regional and a statewide basis. We've let them know that we've stepped up our audits in this area, as well. So there's more oversight that there had been a number of years ago," he said. "But one of the challenges is that there's always a turnover. So, you may train a group of commissioners or heads of the fire company one year but that doesn't mean they are going to be the folks in charge two or three years down the road."
DiNapoli says he wants to make sure everyone knows the rules.
NOTE: We have been informed the original version of this story incorrectly included a photo of a Rifton Fire Department engine. Rifton's volunteer fire company is not a subject of this story, nor does the New York State Comptroller Office website post an audit report of the company 2012-2017.