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State police called in to investigate fire district’s ‘potential improprieties’

Blackstone Valley
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LINCOLN, RI (WPRI) — The Rhode Island State Police have been called in to investigate what Lincoln’s town administrator called “potential improprieties” connected to the financially troubled Lonsdale Fire district, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.

The district’s entire board of fire wardens resigned at the beginning of the year, and in June the new board cited financial problems when deciding to lay off the district’s five full-time firefighters. At the time, the wardens said there was only about $14,000 in the accounts held by the district, which had an annual budget of about $600,000. The Lonsdale section of Lincoln is now protected by the Saylesville fire district’s firefighters.

State police Deputy Superintendent Lt. Colonel Todd Catlow said his agency is investigating “allegations of misappropriation of funds at the Lonsdale Fire District” but would not offer any details at this time.

Lincoln Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond confirmed the investigation, but would not elaborate.

“We decided to call in the state police today (Monday),” Almond said. “I can say state police are investigating potential improprieties.”

Almond penned a 15-page fiscal review of the district’s finances, using facts, figures and potential solutions put together by the district’s new board. While Almond would not say what state police are investigating, the review states the district’s treasurer Michael Babbitt “identified improprieties related to use of health care funds from a multi-district” account.

Before the layoffs, the Lonsdale Fire District administration managed the collaborative health care account for the town’s six fire districts. The fiscal review states Babbitt “discovered financial statements that indicate on at least two occasions, funds from the collaborative health care account were transferred into the Lonsdale district accounts to support operational expenses.”

According to the report, about $40,000 was transferred into the troubled district’s accounts.

Lonsdale board chairman Joe Tashash would not confirm or deny that there is an external investigation, but did say board members continue to work diligently on a fiscal investigation. But he said there is no financial documentation from the past several years.

“We’ve been piecing together the district’s finances,” Tashash said. “Our goal is to insure proper fire protection services for the Lonsdale area.”

The report states that the layoffs did not end the district’s financial obligations which include unemployment taxes, health care costs, retroactive payments to the Saylesville Fire District for fire protection and pension costs.

Among the other findings in the report:

  • $39,000 in pension contributions were unpaid to the town by the district and its employees.
  • A chief’s vehicle was refinanced to cover operating expenses.
  • On a number of occasions, the former wardens and treasurer refused to turn over financial information.

Tashash said the new board, which collectively decided not to accept any payment from the district, is determined to square away the district’s finances and regain the confidence of the district’s taxpayers.

“Any solution will have to include our residents paying their fire district taxes,” Tashash said. “And we cannot raise their taxes. They already have the highest (fire district) tax rate in the town.”

Target 12 reached out to the district’s former treasurer Wayne Hannon, who is Deputy Secretary for Administration with the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services, but he has not returned our phone call. Tashash said Hannon was the district’s treasurer for about a decade, until he resigned in December.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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