WDRB confronts SE Bullitt Fire Chief about spending concerns, empty firehouses
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Questions about spending. Concerns about empty firehouses. When WDRB tried to ask Southeast Bullitt Fire Chief Julius Hatfield about it, things got heated.
Hatfield tried to keep our news crew out of a public meeting of the Southeast Bullitt Fire Protection District on November 11. WDRB reporter Valerie Chinn and photojournalist Beth Peak informed him of their right to cover the meeting by law, and even a concerned citizen stepped in to stop him.
"Chief, this is a public meeting," Chinn said, as Hatfield tried to force her to leave.
"You listen to me here," said the concerned citizen to the chief. "You can't tell these people they can't have a camera in here."
"Yes I can," Hatfield said.
"No you can't!" the citizen replied.
At one point, Hatfield pushed Chinn's microphone away.
"Don't touch our microphone sir," Chinn said. "You can't kick us out of this meeting. It's a public meeting. We have a right to be here."
"Turn that camera off!" Hatfield replied. "I've asked you that in a nice way. Buddy, call the cops and get them here!"
But Chinn and Peak did stay for the meeting, despite Hatfield's protests. And inside, some residents demanded answers as to what is happening within the fire district.
"When you've got an $800,000 surplus and you still have the tax rate at the same deal, why don't you lower the tax rate?" asked resident Albert Tinnell.
Hatfield then moved the board meeting upstairs. He serves as the Chairman of the Board and the Vice President of the Fire Department Board. Five other board members attended this meeting.
At one point, Chinn says she placed a microphone on the table in front of Hatfield, and while she had her back turned, Hatfield threw it at her.
"Um, Chief? You can't throw our microphone," Chinn said.
"I dropped that thing," Hatfield said.
"No, you didn't drop it, you threw it," Chinn said. "I am putting another one down and it better not be thrown."
The Southeast Bullitt Fire Protection District collects the taxes -- about $1 million a year -- and gives that money to the non-profit Southeast Bullitt Fire Department for service.
The Fire Protection District meetings are quick. This one lasted only 10 minutes.
"Why are there so many firehouses that are empty?" Chinn asked Hatfield.
"Do you understand English, darling?" Hatfield asked. "Do you understand English? I just told you I don't have anything to say to you."
"I understand English," Chinn replied. "I don't appreciate how you are speaking to me."
"We contract the fire department to do our district work for us," explained Buddy Greenwell, a Fire Protection District board member. "As long as they're providing service for us, we have no say what he does with his money."
The Kentucky State Auditor's Office recently opened what it calls "an examination" of the Fire Protection District. In 2013, Auditor Adam Edelen said the department needs to make monthly reports to the District as to how the money is being spent.
"There is nothing to find," Hatfield said. "When you do everything right, you have nothing to worry about."
Dan Thibodeaux is a board member of the Southeast Bullitt Fire Protection District.
"Getting this building back in the hands of the taxpayers, finding a way to make sure the taxpayer gets a good shake -- that's what I was put on the board for," he said. "That's what these other board members were put here for, but I don't really feel their heart is doing that."
When we asked for IRS tax returns that the non-profit is legally required to file for 2012 and 2013, they claimed not to have them. They said the non-profit is "being audited."
Tax returns we were able to obtain show that the department has been accumulating surpluses. In 2011, its net assets swelled to $4.6 million. That year, it spent only more than $530,000, but received $1.4 million in tax money. So where is all the extra money going?
We tried to get answers at the second public meeting of the night -- the Fire Department Board meeting -- but Hatfield didn't want us there either.
"Because it's not any of your business," Hatfield said. "It's a private meeting."
"There are meetings that you have to hold that are public," Chinn countered.
"The district board is, this is not," Hatfield replied.
"So everything that goes on with taxpayer money is all private meetings?" Chinn asked.
"Not taxpayer money by the time it gets to us," Hatfield said.
Christmas bonuses are given every year to paid firefighters. Records show last year, Hatfield's wife, Joanne, received a year-end lump sum payment of $14,000 for volunteering her secretarial and bookkeeping services.
"For the paid people, for the three command people that do not get run money all year long, we give them $200-$300 bonuses at Christmas, that is very true," Hatfield said.
"Will the same thing happen this year?" Chinn asked.
"I hope so because I could use the money," Hatfield replied.
"And how much will go to your wife this year?" Chinn asked.
"I don't have any idea," he replied. "That hasn't been decided yet...but at the first of the year, we'll discuss putting her on the regular payroll, pay checks, and pay her like everybody else."
Under the Kentucky Constitution, bonuses for public employees are not allowed.
Hatfield says the Fire Department has five full-time employees and more than 30 volunteers, but has six fire stations. Two are basically garages used for storage. The Department says it has plans to sell those.
Residents who live by Fire Station 3 on Deatsville Road, say they can't get a lower insurance premium because it's not an active fire house. Hatfield says they have equipment in them, but are not staffed.
"We have four active firehouses," Hatfield said. "English. I am speaking English here."
"Do you treat everyone like this sir?" Chinn asked. "Treat everyone like the way you are treating me?"
"I am not treating you anyway than anybody else would," Hatfield said.
Mutual aid is another issue. Shepherdsville Fire Chief Layne Troutman says his department with 15 full-time firefighters and two fire stations can easily help Southeast Bullitt Fire, and vice versa.
But Hatfield says he will not assist.
"We've lost $750,000 to Shepherdsville through our annexation," Hatfield said. "We can't afford to lose much more or we're going to be out of business."
Instead, Troutman says Southeast Bullitt uses Mt. Washington and Zoneton Fire Departments for mutual aid.
"Mt., Washington is probably 12 to 13 miles away from where they'd have to respond to, and Zoneton is probably another 5-6 miles further than us," Troutman said.
Chinn pressed the issue with Hatfield, asking why he was so reluctant to use Shepherdsville.
"Even if something is very serious and you're the closest department?" she asked.
"No, ma'am. Can I make that any more clear?" Hatfield replied. "I asked you once tonight if you understand English. I'm speaking English. No, we don't do mutual aid with Shepherdsville."
In April, the Southeast Bullitt Fire Department was forced to pay back nearly $19,000 to the Kentucky Fire Commission for falsified training records. That's after Hatfield admitted he wasn't at training, which is tied to state aid and incentive pay.
Despite all the records uncovered, some longtime board members of the Fire Protection District have come to Hatfield's defense.
"Julius has turned this fire department around from when they were just carrying buckets and throwing them on fires," said Buddy Greenwell.
"The allegations about how much money Julius has got -- to me, that's his business as far as I'm concerned," said Bruce Myers.
The auditor's office says it's still at the beginning stages of its examination. There is no word on when that will be finished.
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