Email Trail Shows Discord Over Idaho City’s Fire Bill

June 4, 2013

The mayor of the south-central Idaho city of Jerome says a $96,000 bill for firefighting costs would never have been sent to a resident if the city’s elected leaders had been included in the process.

“If this had been sent to council first, we would have reversed it,” John Shine told The Times-News.

Emails obtained by the newspaper show Jerome Fire Chief Jack Krill messaging various city staffers about items in the bill stemming from the April 30 downtown fire before sending it to Sylvia Moore on May 17.

Following extensive news coverage, emails on May 23 show city staffers initially defending the bill before elected officials start to become involved, sometimes angrily.

That prompts City Attorney John Lothspeich to urge elected officials to not create a toxic workplace by terminating workers following a mistake.

The series of events started when Jerome Fire Chief Jack Krill created a bill for firefighting costs, first emailing it to various city staffers to get their opinion.

“I wanted to double check with you before I actually sent the bill to the property owner to make sure we are not missing anything,” Krill wrote in an email to Kathy Cone, the city’s assistant finance officer.

“The invoice and supporting detail looks good to me,” Cone emailed back.

Among others in emails are City Administrator Polly Hulsey and spokeswoman Zoe Monahan.

Various news organizations started pursuing the story because of the uniqueness of a firefighting agency sending a large bill for fighting a fire in an area it’s assigned to protect.

The bill Moore gave the KTVB-TV listed three pages of itemized costs that included pay for firefighters and police, cost of using equipment, and food costs during the several days responders spent at the fire.

Two initial versions of Jerome’s statement regarding the bill following news stories appear to justify sending the bill. The email trail ends there as Shine said he and others met in person to work on a statement cancelling the bill.

That statement said: “The invoice sent to Sylvia Moore was sent in error. No recovery costs will be sought against Ms. Moore for the fire occurring upon her property. The city of Jerome deeply regrets this error.”

Shine said the earlier drafts didn’t adequately address the problem.

“When you’re trying to explain something away, it could lead someone to believe that you don’t really regret it,” he said. “I didn’t want to make that the message. We made a mistake and we are sorry.”

Councilman Chris Barber’s email concerned the actions of city staffers.

“What the hell is going on in this city?” Barber wrote. “It has been nothing but bad policy, decisions and leadership. We have been a laughing stock and the subject of lunch table and scuttlebutt throughout. Who is accountable for this?”

Lothspeich on May 24 urged level headedness.

“If we take a position that any mistake means termination, good applicants will look elsewhere to avoid a toxic workplace environment,” he wrote.

Shine said no one would lose their job over the invoice. He said the city council over the next few months will look at creating a policy for billing recovery costs.

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