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Checks, no balance, in fire chief's case

Pasco County needs to strengthen the oversight of volunteer firefighters after the arrest of former Land O'Lakes Chief James Byrne on charges he pilfered $28,000 from the department's account.

Pasco Fire Chief Anthony Lopinto said his agency will require each of the volunteer departments under the county auspices to file regular financial reports. It's a plausible start. Though volunteers operate as separate, not-for-profit agencies, a significant amount of their income is derived from the county's monthly stipend of $30 per firefighter.

The county also should step up its vetting of the people selected to head the volunteer departments.

(Byrne's brother, Michael, served as Land O'Lakes chief for several months in 2001 but was replaced because of what one department official characterized as administrative shortcomings.)

James Byrne became the department's fifth chief in less than three years when he assumed command in fall 2003. He resigned in December and is charged with grand theft, accused of embezzling $28,000. The Pasco Sheriff's Office said Byrne spent $7,000 on a motorcycle, $3,000 on jewelry, $6,000 on car stereo equipment, purchased airline tickets and took cash advances for meals and other spending. The department requires two signatures on checks drawn on the department's account, but Byrne is accused of sidestepping the controls by using a debit card.

"They put too much faith in one person," Lopinto said of the Land O'Lakes firefighters.

Increasing accountability is key to rebuilding public trust in the department. Much of the missing money came from the county stipends. In that respect, the firefighters themselves are the victims. Though individual members could keep the stipend to cover the cost of gasoline and wear and tear on personal vehicles, most departments pool the monthly allotment to finance training and equipment upgrades. For instance, West Pasco volunteers based in Hudson refurbished an ambulance into a relief vehicle to provide an air-conditioned aid station for firefighters to use at structure fires, and Tri-Community volunteers built a portable light truck to illuminate nighttime emergencies.

There was no such altruism in Land O'Lakes, where Byrne told a detective he spent the money to enrich his lifestyle. Byrne escaped scrutiny, at least temporarily, because the department's former board of directors disbanded after the Land O'Lakes volunteers merged with Pasco County in October 2002.

Under the merger agreement, volunteers maintain ownership of the fire station on Hale Road and handle their own finances. The county covers insurance, fuel and overhead costs, plus contributes the monthly stipends, which are capped at $900 per department. County trucks and personnel operate from stations near the county jail and next to a sheriff's substation near State Road 54 and U.S. 41.

At Lopinto's suggestion, the department agreed to press charges against Byrne. It is a necessary move to rebuild credibility.

"It just brings suspicions from constituents about public safety," said Lopinto. "We have to show the public it's one person and not everybody. We're going to make him accountable."

Indeed. The department would be wise to follow suit and reinstitute a board of directors for additional oversight.