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Under Fire Part One: A small volunteer fire department’s questionable financial past

A former Forgotten Coast fire chief is accused of spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on questionable expenses.
Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 9:33 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - A former Forgotten Coast fire chief is accused of spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on questionable expenses.

The accusation casts a shadow on the department two years later.

The current leaders of the St. James Lanark Village Volunteer Fire Department say they’re disgusted at what has happened and are determined to regain credibility.

But viewers who recently reached out to WCTV still have concerns.

It takes just a few minutes to drive from the Lanark Village entrance off U.S 98 in Franklin County to the unassuming home of the St. James Lanark Village Fire Department. In between is a community of hundreds, with some still struggling to trust their first responders.

“I was really appalled at some of the things going on and being allowed to happen, and nobody seemed to be able to stop it,” said Patricia Bludworth, who lives in Lanark Village.

She’s one of at least half a dozen Lanark residents who spoke with WCTV, expressing concerns about the department’s past, present and future.

Part one of this WCTV special report focuses on the past. Specifically, an 18-month stretch from 2018 to 2019 when Marc Goodwin was fire chief of the department.

Franklin County Commissioner Bert Boldt serves district two, which includes Lanark Village.

“There wasn’t anyone there to tell us how it was justified,” Boldt said.

He said red flags began to appear, prompting the county to take a closer look at the LVFD’s financial history.

“What are you spending money for, how are we doing it, and why are you doing it? And we couldn’t get real good answers on that,” Boldt said.

In came an Apalachicola CPA, commissioned by the county to conduct a full audit on the department’s expenses.

Delivered in 2020, the report found over $35,000 in “questionable expenditures.”

According to the audit, about $7,000 of the department’s usable income came from donations. The rest dipped into public funds designated for expenses directly related to fire protection and rescue services, including equipment and training.

Up until mid-October, George Briesacker served as treasurer, secretary, and de-facto chair of the board for the fire department. He recently retired from the role.

“It was in 2018 when things went array,” Briesacker said.

He said he wasn’t around in 2018, but realized the issue when looking through the books.

“I mean some of the things they put on there, they just, like I said they made me sick. I couldn’t go through it all I said, it was just too much,” he said.

Some of the most eye-catching purchases unearthed in the audit included over $1,100 spent on fruit trees, at least $400 spent on a Christmas tree at Costco, nearly $4,800 in groceries, and $1,700 spent on airline tickets and funeral expenses.

Many of the expenses were charged to an LVFD debit card, which Briesacker says is no longer a threat.

“I’ve since had that card destroyed, there is no longer a credit card for the fire department,” he said.

So who is responsible? The audit doesn’t directly point a finger, and questions remain as Chief Goodwin and his wife moved out of state to Georgia.

Court records track the couple to Blue Ridge, in North Georgia. A possible motel reservation in Blue Ridge is one of the final expenses on the audit.

Efforts to contact Goodwin have been unsuccessful.

WCTV reached out to both the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office in Franklin County. Both reported no active investigations into the matter.

But Commissioner Boldt said he wants to use the incident to strengthen requirements as to how fire departments in Franklin County spend public dollars.

“It’s the people’s money, bottom line. And we want to make sure we are accountable and good utilization review of how every money is spent,” he said.

PART TWO: St. James Lanark Village Volunteer FD chief claims competency despite some concerns from residents

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