KIMBERLY, Idaho -- Concerns are being raised in a rural area in the Magic Valley about where tax dollars are going.
A group of people feels their public officials aren't being transparent, and says no one is holding them accountable. They are accusing the Rock Creek Rural Fire Protection District (RCFD) of wasting taxpayers' money. Some are calling the fire chief and fire commissioners out for blurring the lines between public and personal money and for sticking to the status quo.
"There's no accountability. That's the problem. There's no transparency," a concerned taxpayer in the Rock Creek Fire District, Ed Easterling, said.
"The way they're going down there just don't make rhyme nor reason and there's people concerned about it," former fire chief and candidate for an RCFD commissioner position, Mike Hendricks, said.
Some have issues dating back a few years over the chief's - and the three commissioners' - actions. Some feel RCFD Chief Jason Keller doesn't respond to enough calls, is rarely working and is abusing taxpayer dollars.
"We go over every bill with a fine tooth comb every month. That's part of our job," RCFD Commissioner Brad Perkins said.
One of the biggest issues they have: how Chief Keller is using his command vehicle.
"Every day he's using that vehicle - to the grocery store, taking his kids someplace, his wife," Easterling said. "What's the liability?"
"I'm the third chief and every chief has had their own command vehicle to use as they wish," Keller told KTVB.
This year, Keller signed a five-year contract with a two-year extension for about $72,000 a year to start. In the benefits section, the district agrees to provide the chief a vehicle and pay for all attendant operating and maintenance expenses and insurance.
The contract states, "said vehicle is to be used by the Fire Chief in connection with the performance of his duties and for his professional growth and development. It may be used by the Fire Chief for personal reasons, since the Fire Chief is 'on-call' in the event of major emergencies. Fuel shall be provided at the Fire Chief's own expense when the vehicle is used for personal reasons, otherwise the District shall provide fuel for all other use to perform his duties."
"If you don't allow him to have a vehicle then you have to adjust his wages," RCFD Commissioner Marvin Norris told KTVB.
"The reason the commissioners have done that is because it's part of my salary. My salary is lower and that's the compensation to fill that gap, so to speak," Keller said.
But Keller is taking his command vehicle out of town and on vacation - something he and the commissioners admit to.
"It irritates me to see him pulling a camp trailer around loaded up with his personal sporting equipment," Easterling said.
"A personal vehicle is to get him from home to the station, from home to a call. Not to drive it out of state and on vacations," Hendricks said. "Not at the taxpayers' dime."
Keller tells us he is using his own personal money when he takes the truck out of district. In fact, earlier this year, the Twin Falls Police Department investigated whether Keller was using the district credit card for personal use, but they found "no probable cause that Chief Keller or the fire commissioners have committed a crime".
Still, some taxpayers are concerned there's no accountability
"How do you separate when he puts gas in?" Easterling said.
Those who are concerned would like to see Chief Keller be required to complete and submit a monthly travel-mileage report and for the miles and fuel charges to be checked and verified by someone above the chief.
"Do they have a mileage report? Fuel receipts to tie that vehicle with that fuel card? Keep better track of what's being spent," Hendricks added.
The fire district commissioners tell KTVB they are not keeping track of when Keller is using his pickup for personal or district business, and it's on him to keep track of mileage and gas fill-ups.
"We still go pretty much on the honor system," Commissioner Norris said. "He's never given me one reason to doubt his honesty."
"We're not going to check his odometer every month because we do trust him to keep his mileage correctly," Commissioner Perkins added.
Norris says it would cost taxpayers more to compensate Keller if he didn't have this command vehicle for personal use.
An accident report from the Idaho Transportation Department shows Keller was driving the command vehicle in McCall in June when he hit an elk on State Highway 55. That has been a point of contention for some, since taxpayers foot the bill for maintenance and the $500 deductible for repairs.
"We're paying the taxes, the insurance, the license, everything on that vehicle," Easterling added.
In speaking with several other area fire districts and departments, 7 Investigates found mixed responses: in some, district-owned vehicles are not allowed for personal use. In others, the employee has to be on call or available to respond to emergencies. Overall, if vehicles are taken out of town, it's strictly on district-related business.
"I see nothing wrong with this because what little bit he uses it for personal business like that, the stuff he does around here during his business far outweighs that situation. Maybe that's something the three of us need to look into and change," Norris said.
"We are looking at different options as far as the use of it; business versus private," Perkins added. "He's not violating anything. If this policy we have is unfair to the district then we need to make the change, not the chief."
"If we need to make changes in our policy, we'll make changes in our policy," Keller told KTVB.
District officials say they wish everyone raising these issues would come forward and talk to them face-to-face because up to this point, a lot of people involved have remained anonymous except for Easterling and Hendricks.
"If somebody can't sign their name or talk to the three of us face-to-face, I'm done chasing these ghosts," Norris added.
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