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Menahga Fire Department gets call from state auditor

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Menahga Fire Department gets call from state auditor
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

This year's Menahga Fire Relief pancake feed fundraiser was incorrectly advertised, resulting in an anonymous call to the Office of the State Auditor.

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The annual event, held in October, is a fundraiser for the Fire Relief Association. But this year's flyers insinuated that the fire department hosted the event, by inadvertently eliminating the word "relief."

Fire Chief Dave Kicker indirectly implied that one of the council members reported the mistake at Monday night's meeting.

"It didn't make us very happy," he said. "The council should have been behind us."

Councilwoman Maxine Norman said she wasn't the one to report the incident.

"I didn't send it in," she said. "And if anyone in this town is accusing me of that, they are wrong."

That's why she requested last month that a letter from the council be sent to the fire department reminding them to include the Fire Relief Association sponsorship in all flyers, posters and notices for those types of events, to avoid an OSA investigation in the future, Norman said.

One way a fire relief association differs from a city or town fire department is that a volunteer fire relief association is required to maintain control of its own funds, according to the OSA.

It receives and manages public money to offer retirement benefits for those providing firefighting and emergency first response services.

"They know what should happen, they told us it was an oversight," State Auditor Rebecca Otto said in an interview. "They said the person who prepared the flyer made a mistake ... it will not happen again."

The OSA did not conduct an investigation.

At Monday's meeting, councilman Joel Mickelson wanted to end the discussion and stop the accusations.

He took a roll call asking each council member if they were behind reporting the incident to the OSA.

All council members said they had nothing to do with it.

"(The fire department) did something wrong, they were corrected, let's move on," Mickelson said. "I don't want to sit here and be accused of something I didn't do."

In other business, the council:

-Denied Blueberry Township's request for reimbursement of legal fees spent this year on the fire contract negotiations. The township board said they were not satisfied with requests made to the city.

Legal fees totaled $3,295.66 and last month the council agreed get city attorney Jeff Pederson's opinion on the matter.

According to state law, transfers of public funds must be made for a public purpose.

The question was whether the reimbursement requested would be a legitimate public purpose expense by the city, Pederson wrote in a letter to the council.

If the council found the payment would benefit the city as a whole, is directly related to the functions of government and does not benefit a private interest, then it can be made to Blueberry Township, Pederson added.

The council did not find the criteria were met, therefore voted to deny the township's request.

Blueberry Township made the conscious decision to pay legal fees to get their answers, Mickelson said.

"I don't think the city of Menahga is obligated to pay those fees," councilwoman Kim Rasmussen agreed.

But Norman disagreed and voted nay. She said the township wouldn't have incurred those expenses if they received the paperwork requested from the city.

However, elements of the fire contract were not documented correctly to begin with, which is one of the reasons for the OSA investigation, Mickelson said. Now the investigation is over and everything is well documented.

Mayor Tom Larson, Rasmussen and Mickelson voted to deny the township's request. Norman voted against it and councilman Dennis Komulainen chose to abstain from voting.

-Discussed a request by Ruby's Pantry to use the fire hall as a monthly food distribution venue.

The city's insurance carrier advised the council not to allow use of the fire hall for food distribution due to liability.

But liability still exists with the annual pancake feed because it's also a public event, Mickelson said.

"We have to be respectful to every section ... member of the city," he said.

The difference is that city hall and the fire hall are city offices and not a community center, Rasmussen said.

And during the pancake feed, all firemen are already on hand in case they have to go out on a call, all equipment is organized and ready to go, Kicker said.

Mickelson suggested the reason to deny Ruby's Pantry's request should not be liability risks but rather the inconvenience it would cause the fire department.

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