Rules for Missouri Fire Protection Districts
Parenthetical numbers in the text refer to sections of the current Revised Statutes of Missouri, abbreviated as RSMo.
Restrictions on who may serve on board
The statutes (321.015 and 321.017) restrict who may serve on a fire protection district board. Persons “holding any lucrative office or employment” under the state or any of its political subdivisions are prohibited in most districts. This public employment prohibition applies only in certain counties, and it allows exceptions to those who serve in the military and the reserve corps, to public school employees and to notaries public. Other statutes define a political subdivision as any entity with power to levy taxes. Thus, if a sitting board member takes a job with a tax-Ievying entity, that member must resign and the seat is declared vacant. The definition of “lucrative office or employment” seems to include persons who are no longer employees of the state or its political subdivisions, but whose retirement pay is more than $27,350 per year. Additionally, no employee of an ambulance district or another fire protection district may serve as board member. This fire and ambulance district employee prohibition applies in all the state’s counties.
As noted in Chapter XVIII. Elections, in 2005, the legislature made persons who are guilty of a federal felony or misdemeanor ineligible for any state elective public office (115.348). In 2006, the legislature also disqualified persons who owe any tax or who are a past or present corporate officer of any fee office that owes taxes to the state (115.342) and persons found guilty of a state felony (115.350)
In addition to the 18 powers listed in Chapter II. District Powers and Duties, the board of a fire protection district is authorized to carry out the work of the district, including employing such help and contracting for such work as is necessary to provide service to the district, and may pay “reasonable compensation.” Hiring and firing the district’s fire chief is one of the most important duties of an FPD.
All persons employed by the board on behalf of the district are, by law, at-will employees. This means they are employed for an indefinite term, which either employer or employee may terminate at any time, for or without cause.
The board must make many decisions about the scope of services and benefits the district will offer, often by taking issues to district voters. Matters such as whether ambulance service, employee pensions, central dispatching or paramedic services are to be provided are presented as separate ballot questions. Expanding or contracting district boundaries also requires voter approval.
The first duty of the board is to choose a chairman and president, a secretary and a treasurer. If the district has a three-member board, all three may be officers. The latter two positions may be combined, and neither has to be a board member, though they may be.
Separate chapters in this manual cover the duties of the secretary and treasurer. The only stated duty for the president is to preside over meetings. The president also has the power to vote as a member of the board and should always do so.
Sometimes the bylaws or policies of a fire protection district will assign other duties to the president of the board. These duties might entail authorizing expenditures beyond the authority given to the fire chief or suspending, pending the next board meeting, an employee or volunteer from his or her job.
Each member of an FPD board is required to be bonded under a surety bond for at least $1,000 (321.160). The fire district treasurer is required to be bonded for at least $5,000 (321.180). A surety bond is not intended as protection for the board member or treasurer, but as protection for taxpayers. If the bonded official steals money from the district, the bonding company will reimburse the taxpayers, up to the maximum amount of the bond. Each district should consider its own situation when bonding board members, for although the minimum bond required for the treasurer is $5,000, that may not be enough to provide adequate protection for most fire districts.
Pay for board members
Every board member may receive an attendance fee of $100 for attending any regular or special board meeting, if the board authorizes such payments. Payments are limited to two meetings per month. In first-class charter counties (currently St. Louis and Jackson counties), the members may receive up to $200 per meeting for a maximum of four meetings per month. No board member may receive payment for more than one meeting in a calendar week. The chairperson receives an additional $50 dollars for each meeting, but the limit is two per month. A board member who also serves as secretary, treasurer or combined secretary/treasurer may receive additional pay as set by the board, limited to $1,000 annually (321.190). Board members who do not receive the state-mandated annual training are ineligible to receive pay (see Training below). The fees should be paid after the meeting, not before, and taxes should be withheld.
With appropriate documentation, board members may be reimbursed for actual expenditures on behalf of the district.
The circuit court that declared the district incorporated may remove any or all board members “for good cause shown upon a petition, notice and hearing” (321.190). Based on a decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals, only the county prosecuting attorney, the Missouri attorney general, or a petitioner authorized to act by one of them may ask the court to remove a board member.
Pension board of trustees
In 2007, the Missouri Legislature established by statute (321.800) a requirement to create a pension board for some fire protection districts. The law says that a fire district that has a “retirement plan or other benefits-related plan” must “administer” its plan through a separate five-member pension board of trustees.
Whether the “benefits” mentioned in the statute relate to health insurance, disability insurance, etc., in addition to the district’s pension plan is unclear. The composition of the pension board, however, is clear: three members of the board of directors and two “participants” in the pension plan. These participants could include retirees. The pension plan participants elect three of their members and submit the names to the board of directors. The directors then select two of the three to serve on the five-member pension board.
What is not yet determined is whether the statute creates a power in the board of trustees that overrides the directors’ statutory power. For now, the power the new statute grants the pension trustees to “administer” the plan does not appear to supersede the power granted to directors to establish a pension plan (321.220 for most fire districts; 321.600 for fire districts in St. Louis County ). The district’s lawyer should be consulted on this. A district with a pension plan, however, should establish a pension board of trustees as soon as possible.
Another new law (105.666) requires the pension board members to attend education classes twice a year and establishes the curriculum for those classes. The MAFPD and other organizations have established such board educational programs.
State auditor concerns
The Missouri state auditor performs audits on public entities, including fire protection districts, when enough taxpayers have signed a petition for such an audit. Several districts have been audited based on such petitions. A board of directors should review those audit reports, which are available on the Missouri State Auditor website, http://auditor.mo.gov.
The state auditor recommends that a fire district establish certain policies and good auditing practices, which cannot be found in any Missouri statute. For example, the state auditor believes public entities should always have a current inventory of all their equipment and other property. That is good practice for any organization. A fire district should inventory not just its fire-fighting apparatus but all the equipment owned by the district, including computers, chairs and file cabinets. Each item should be labeled and put on an inventory list, either electronic or paper, that is kept current.
In the reports, the state auditor has chastised fire districts for not having a travel reimbursement policy, not bidding health insurance every three years (as required by law) and not having a vehicle-, credit card- or cell phone-use policy. The auditor has also criticized districts for not keeping close records on maintenance for trucks and other vehicles.
The board might ask the district’s accountant to download some of these audit reports, which can be used to educate the directors and office employees on sound financial management. Districts have suffered losses (including by embezzlement) when basic accounting practices were not followed, or when the district had little or no segregation of duties.
Fire protection district officials must be sworn in before taking office. How soon this is done after an election is the board’s decision. Outgoing officials retain their authority until the incoming officers are sworn in. The district secretary, county clerk or circuit judge can administer the oath. This oath is important because it serves to remind the board members elect that they are public officials, subject to the associated legal requirements. Each officer sworn in should receive a written copy of the oath. The oath is to be filed within 15 days with the circuit clerk, along with proof of issuance of a $1,000 surety bond covering that person.
Terms and perpetual existence
The district has perpetual existence. This means, in practice, that terms of officials continue until successors are elected or appointed and qualified. Expiration of a term does not relieve the official of FPD duties until a replacement is in place.
When a vacancy occurs on a fire district board, either by no one being elected, by the one elected failing to qualify, by relocation, by death or for any other reason, the remaining board members appoint someone to fill the vacancy (321.200.2). If fewer than two elected board members remain, the law requires appointments to be made by the circuit court of the county containing most of the district. A replacement serves until the next biennial election.
Resigning from district office requires two steps: The board member offers to resign, and a quorum of the board accepts the resignation. The resigning official is not relieved of responsibility until the board has accepted the resignation. This is how perpetual existence of the district is maintained. Should resignations threaten the quorum, replacements must be appointed before more resignations can be accepted.
The board must meet at least monthly within the district, with notice of meeting times and location continuously posted at the firehouse or firehouses. When special meetings are necessary, each board member must be formally notified. Minutes of every board meeting must be available to any member of the public within one week after the meeting upon written request (321.200).
“A majority of the members of the board shall constitute a quorum” and no business may be transacted until a majority is present (321.200). In a three-director district, at least two officials must be present for a meeting. In a five-director district, at least three must be present.
There are times when a board member must abstain from voting, but these should be kept to a minimum. Each member has made a commitment, under oath, to represent the district on all questions. Unless voting would create a conflict of interest or constitute nepotism, all members should vote on all issues. If abstaining, the member should leave the room and not participate in the discussion before the vote.
Rules of procedure
As a public governmental body, the board must comply with Missouri’s Sunshine Law regarding meetings, records and votes (see Chapter IX. Meetings, Records and Votes). In addition, the board should consider adopting and publishing its own rules of procedure that define the regular time, date and place of meetings; the order in which business will be conducted; whether members of the public attending meetings will be permitted to speak and under what limitations; and other housekeeping matters. Establishing such procedures and using them consistently can help the board operate in a fair and orderly way. Having procedures in place before an issue draws a large number of attendees who might be upset will smooth operations considerably.
The state has special rules for possible public redress of FPD actions. These rules apply to fire districts alone among the multiple types of political subdivisions in Missouri. With the exception of a few cities that have drawn their own charter and adopted similar provisions, only fire districts have the options for initiative, referendum and recall actions included in their generic statutory charter. Although these rules are rarely applied, all district officials should understand them (see Chapter IV. Initiative, Referendum and Recall).
All fire district board members elected after Jan. 1, 2008, must undergo training that has been approved by the state fire marshal. An untrained director cannot receive compensation for attending meetings. The Certified Fire District Board Training offered by the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute (http://mufrti.org) and the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts (http://mafpd.org) will satisfy this requirement. Districts can obtain current information on training requirements and approved providers from the Missouri Division of Fire Safety website, http://dfs.dps.mo.gov.
In addition, the federal government requires training for all board members in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established requirements for this training to improve communication between federal and local government officials. Failure to participate in the required training makes a fire district ineligible for reimbursement for emergency response costs and for federal grants. NIMS training is available on the Internet. For more information, type NIMS in the search box on the FEMA website, http://fema.gov, or the U.S. Fire Administration website, http://usfa.dhs.gov. The State Emergency Management Agency website, http://sema.dps.mo.gov, may also have useful information on NIMS.