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Spending by Tri-State Fire District called into question

DARIEN – The Tri-State Fire Protection District provides firefighting and paramedic services to parts of Burr Ridge, Darien, Willowbrook, unincorporated DuPage County and now Willow Springs with a $13.7 million budget, according to the Better Government Association (BGA).

According to BGA though, the district has "less-than-thrifty spending habits," with tax dollars going to steak and lobster dinners, bonuses, new Ford Expeditions and legal bills, among other questionable expenditures.

These are the latest findings in a months-long investigation that has led to two other BGA reports on the agency. One exposed the late-career raises that boosted the retirement pay of three high-ranking officials – deals that could cost taxpayers an additional $1.5 million in pension payments, according to the BGA.

Another report raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving Tri-State Chief Michelle Gibson and Tri-State Trustee Jill Strenzel. The BGA reported that "the two are long-time domestic partners and formed a civil union last year. Strenzel is an elected member of the board that oversees the staff and has voted on Gibson's promotion, pay and benefits, according to the BGA.

BGA has also found that spending in Tri-State's general fund – one of the district's two primary operating funds – exceeded its revenues by more than $2.7 million from 2008, when Gibson became chief, through 2012, according to financial statements obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Gibson disputed many of the BGA's findings and said the district's general fund balance in 2012 was about $7.9 million, up 2.2 percent from 2008. However, the numbers that she cited actually represent the district's assets and do not account for its liabilities, which have grown by 60 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to BGA.

The BGA reported that Gibson said in an email "we have effectively managed our costs and revenue. I am very proud to have spent 32 years at Tri-State leading and working with the best and bravest men and women of the Fire and Rescue Service."

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