Around 15 miles south of Muskogee, Keefeton is a sleepy town with little more than a couple of convenience stores, a church and a fire department. Drivers headed south toward Warner often notice a helicopter sitting on the east side of State Highway 64 — a helicopter belonging to a private company, Tulsa LifeFlight. The helicopter is used to transport ambulance patients by air to hospitals.
The company leases the helicopter pad from the Keefeton Fire Department, which is owned by Muskogee County after it converted from a private nonprofit to a county-owned fire department around a decade ago. The conversion, covered in Title 19 of Oklahoma law, means the fire department became county-owned, and therefore subject to all state laws regarding county entities.
Speck Plunkett, the Keefeton fire chief, expressed confusion about who owned the department.
“We’re not a county-owned department,” he said today. Then, when asked if the fire department was organized under Title 18, which governs private nonprofit fire departments, or Title 19, which governs county-owned fire departments, he said “Oh, we’re Title 19. Absolutely.”
Eastern Oklahoma Development District Director Ernie Moore confirmed that Keefeton Fire Department is a county-owned Title 19 department.
The problem, however, is that the lease between Life Flight and Keefeton does not go through the county, either in bidding or revenue. Specifically, the money paid to the fire department by Life Flight does not go through the county treasurer. Instead, it goes into a private bank account.
“Well, it goes into our general fund,” Plunkett said. “Our board of directors takes care of that. It doesn’t go through the county. It’s not a county-owned fire department.”
When asked to provide a copy of the lease agreement, Plunkett referred MuskogeeNOW.com to Tony Burress, the department’s chairman of the board, who has not returned calls for comment.
The department, like many across the state, petitioned and was approved to shift from a private entity to a county-owned entity so its members could participate in the county pension fund. The department receives county funding and benefits from a tax specifically for it. State law does not provide for county-owned fire departments to have private bank accounts. In fact, an audit report by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector on another fire department in the same situation explicitly proclaimed:
Upon becoming a Title 19 fire district, the District can no longer operate independent of the County. Accordingly, there would be no authority for the District to possess bank accounts outside of the County.
Any money collected by the fire district “should be deposited with the county treasurer,” the audit report continues. In addition, any payments made by the district “should be made through the county clerk, utilizing purchase orders ... and ultimately approved by the county commissioners.”
In addition, the report states that Title 19 fire districts can’t lease or rent any property without first going through the county — and being competitively bid, and that revenue from those agreements must go through the county.
“Like I say, the fire department has had its own account for years,” Plunkett said. “If that’s the case (that all money must go through the county), every fire department in Muskogee County is going to be that way.”
Plunkett could not provide a list of other fire departments that maintained accounts and made lease agreements outside of county oversight.
Stephen Wright, the county commissioner over the Keefeton department, said he had no idea anything like that was going on.
“I know they are Title 19,” he said. “I thought all we (the county) was in charge of was basically the sales tax.”
Wright said he will discuss this issue with District Attorney Orvil Loge tomorrow.
Ultimately, money collected from the helicopter pad lease should, according to state law, be subject to public records inspection, as should any money being deposited into or paid out from any bank accounts belonging to the district. So far, access to those records has not been provided.
UPDATE 11:35 A.M.: Burress called back and said the helicopter lease figures were not immediately available, but would be tonight.