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Audit of several fire departments raises questions

By Matthew Smith
Published On: Sep 24 2012 08:41:04 PM CDT
Updated On: Jan 14 2014 04:37:27 PM CST
El Paso, TEXAS -

A recent audit of the Emergency Services District No. 2 in El Paso county turned up several issues.

On Monday, County Commissioners were expected to make a move to request both ESDs to use their power to provide more guidance on volunteer fire departments in their districts. Right now, the county has no direct control over volunteer fire departments. However, they have control over ESDs, which oversee each of the fire departments in El Paso county.

"If they don't comply they could, or should, shut them down," said Judge Veronica Escobar, talking about issues that have periodically arisen tied to audits and budgeting within the volunteer fire departments.

Two members from the county signed up to talk about the agenda item before Commissioners. Much to the surprise of everyone involved, including the judge who has been very hands-on with the ESDs, the president of ESD No. 2, Carlos Sandoval, came to the meeting to speak.

"I would not reappoint a single member on the board currently, including myself," said Sandoval.

Sandoval gave an long speech about how too many firefighters are in positions of power, and that more business people needed to find there way onto the ESD boards.

"We need some young blood," said Sandoval, pointing to his three years of service and the fact that only three people have served as ESD No. 2 president over the past 20 years.

While the comments were surprising to commissioners in themselves, so was the person they were coming from.

Sandoval was one of two ESD No. 2 members who were being investigated by the Sheriff's Department earlier this year. Sandoval and Robert Ostrengawere investigated after Ostrenga, the fire chief of Montana Vista, sold a used department vehicle to himself. Sandoval signed off on the purchase. An investigation was spurred shortly thereafter because more money went into repairs for the vehicle than the purchase price mere weeks before it was sold.

"Under no circumstance should a member of a board ever buy property," said Ecobar.

"I won't make a comment on that," replied Sandoval during the meeting.

Commissioner Anna Perez was less concerned about who was talking, and more concerned about the audit.

A 56-page report showed several major findings including reimbursements at local fire departments without proper documentation, invoices turned in (and paid out) multiple times and what the audit referred to as "questionable" business practices. It's an issue Perez feels is compounded by the fact that the ESDs are taxing entities that are in control of millions of dollars worth of equipment.

"You're wasting time creating checks and balances, when you don't have a correct way of handling $20 million," said Perez.

She questioned whether the people behind the scenes were competent, and lambasted Sandoval for his talks of changing policy.

"This is bigger than a policy," said Perez.

Commissioner Tania Chozet chimed in too, telling the court volunteer fire departments need to quit looking at their bank accounts as "piggy banks."

Sandoval said the ESD No. 2 would have a response to each of the issues that were raised in October.

He also talked about the San Elizario volunteer fire department, calling it a "rogue," department. He said the ESD is seeking more information, and if needed they'll turn that information over to the proper authorities when it becomes available to them. When asked what type of issues he believed a complete audit would unveil, he declined to comment further.
 

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