The former fire chief and treasurer of the St. Clair Fire Protection District, Eric Hinson, has admitted he embezzeled nearly $600,000 from the district in one of the most serious crimes of this sort in the history of Franklin County. He will be sentenced in federal court May 2.
Along with the large amount of money that he misappropriated, he violated the public trust of the district and his fellow firemen.
There are more than 50 taxing districts in Franklin County. We salute the board members of these districts, the vast majority of whom are willing to serve the residents of these districts at no pay, and in some cases, such as firemen, performing hazardous duties. A situation as what happened in the St. Clair Fire Protection District is extremely rare, but can happen.
The St. Clair incident should serve as a warning to all taxing districts that keen oversight must be given to the use of funds provided by residents of the districts. There should be in place a system for close auditing of expenditures. Some districts employ auditing firms to provide annual audits, which should be available to the public. A question arises as to whether state statutes are adequate in requiring taxing districts to have audits and providing budget information to the public. If they are adequate, are they being enforced? Are there effective laws dealing with conflicts of interest in these districts and what oversight is being provided?
Residents of these taxing districts need to pay attention to what is going on in districts in which they reside. Most people live in multiple taxing districts. In too many districts, there is little or no attention given to the operations by the taxpayers. No one attends public hearings on budgets.
There is a lesson to be learned in what happened in the St. Clair Fire Protection District. For their own protection, board members must give high attention to expenditures and other operations. They must avoid conflicts of interest, especially with board members having relatives serving in paid positions. Audits should be performed annually by outside private firms and the use of attorneys is important in ensuring laws are followed, including the Sunshine Law.
Board members have a huge responsibility in being guardians of the public trust.