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With Seffner-Mango fire station in the works, old issues remain

SEFFNER — Workers will break ground in January on a $1.5-million station for Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Rescue, an organization which took over the area's volunteer fire duties three years ago.

"It will have all of the equipment to go with an up-to-date facility," said Ray Yeakley of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, which is footing the bill for the station at 105 Cactus Road.

But Robert Van Etten, chief of the new station, is still fuming about the old volunteer fire department, the Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Department, that was disbanded in 2005 by Hillsborough County Fire Rescue chief William Nesmith. Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Rescue was created to fill the vacuum.

Among other things, the county accused the former department's chief, Bradley Price, of poor management practices after Price posted nude photos of himself from his home computer on an Internet dating site.

The county declared the Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Department's building unfit for habitation due to mold, and confiscated equipment. Price stepped down as chief, then re-emerged as "administrative chief," a position he still holds.

And Price has hung onto the defunct department's treasury, including $325,000 from the sale of property at 1706 S Kingsway Road that housed the former fire station. That rankles Van Etten.

"The community needs to be up in arms about it," said Van Etten, 70. "It's their money." He wants Price to turn over the old department's treasury to the county.

Price, 52, said he intends to give money to worthy causes, such as people whose homes have been damaged by fire or to firefighters or their families.

"It is going back to the public," he said. "But we're going to choose," Price said.

So far, he said he has aided Marsha Webb, who was uninsured when her house burned in January, and the family of county Fire Rescue Capt. Chris Artigas, 45, who was fatally shot in June. Price would not disclose how much he gave to either party.

Price disputes reports that he controls more than $300,000. N.R.G. Investments, which bought the 2.5-acre site, still owes at least $125,000, he said. He acknowledges that donations from the public make up some of the treasury — money presumably given for the purpose of fighting fires.

"People donated for services rendered," Price said. "They got a return on their dollar."

Price would not say how much money exists from donations, nor would he show records of donations to a reporter.

Some residents are skeptical about Price's motives.

"The area residents don't believe him, and they're disappointed and outraged at the way he would have taken money from the general public and done God knows what with it," said Terry Flott, president of the Seffner Community Alliance.

Price denies concerns that any money is going for his own use.

"If that were true, I wouldn't be struggling to make my mortgage payments," he said.

Price and his father, Henry Price, live on property Henry's father bought from the Seffner family in 1932. Henry Price founded the Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Department in 1960. Henry Price, 83, said that he and his son have given a fire truck worth $40,000 to a nearby church. He couldn't remember the name of the church.

The elder Price said his son is waiting for the Kingsway Road property to be paid off.

"When he receives the final payment, we are going to liquidate all of it," Henry Price said.

The appropriateness of Price's plan is for the Internal Revenue Service to decide. The IRS requires nonprofit organizations which dissolve to distribute their funds to federal, state or local governments or other tax-exempt organizations for a public purpose — but allows some leeway for the dissolving organizations to decide how to direct their funds.

"When an organization sets itself up, it has to have its articles of incorporation to address that issue as to how it is going to disburse its money when it dissolves itself," IRS spokesman Mike Dobzinski said. "It has to be along the lines of what their purpose is," he added. "It can't be something different."

The fire department's articles of incorporation from 1960 were not available at press time. The controversy that has simmered since 2005 may be waning. Van Etten recently addressed the Greater Seffner Area Chamber of Commerce but has not managed to drum up much outcry over Price and the funds these days.

"Apparently nobody wants to do anything about it," he said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2431.

With Seffner-Mango fire station in the works, old issues remain 12/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:31pm]

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