Jul 30, 2004

Texas Officials Drop $3 Water Theft Charge Against Firefighters

In east Texas, a theft charge filed by rural water supply company Star Mountain Water against the Winona Fire Department was dropped after officials realized the actual value of the water was less than $3.

According to a news story filed yesterday in the Tyler Morning Telegraph  by staff writer Jacque Hilburn, Smith County sheriff's officials recalculated the amount soon after Star Mountain Water Supply Co. filed a criminal complaint against Fire Chief Tommy Brock, claiming the rural fire department took water for uses other than fire suppression.

Firefighters said they removed water from a flush value last week to wet the track of Rosebowl Raceway in exchange for a $150 donation to the department. Brock said he offered to reimburse Star Mountain Water but the company instead pursued criminal charges.

According to sheriff's officials, the matter will not be resolved through the criminal justice system. They assert that there are no written guidelines or policies are in place dictating how much water is available for fire department use or how they may use it.

"The sheriff's office does not believe the fire department had any intent to deprive the water company of the water," said Detective Sgt. Pat Hendrix, Smith County Sheriff's Office. "You have to prove there was intent. Without intent, we don't have a case."

Authorities estimated the actual dollar loss at about $3 for 1,600 gallons, based on an average rate of $1.90 per 1,000 gallons. And half of the water in question remains in the fire department's truck.

"If they want it back, I'll be happy to dump it wherever they want it," Brock said.

Star Mountain officials said they were displeased with the move to drop the case.

"That means everybody can steal water and get away with it … The issue is they got the water, they took the water, when they were capable of getting it elsewhere," Star Mountain Water operator Rickey Wells told Hilburn.

The company reinstalled the fire valve on its line on Wednesday, giving firefighters complete access in the event of a structure fire or emergency.

In a written statement released Thursday, racetrack officials said they were unaware of the ongoing rift between the water company and firefighters.

Deborah Honea, commenting on behalf of Rosebowl Raceway, issued a written statement, indicating the fire department had done work there before, dousing the track three times in July to collect $450 in donations.

Hendrix said both the fire department and water supply company were advised to establish policies that would prevent future incidents and misunderstandings. Efforts are under way to plan a meeting so that unresolved questions and issues may be answered.

Smith County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton told Hilburn he was not surprised to learn charges had been filed by the water company. He explained that a similar situation happened to another East Texas fire department after it filled residential swimming pools in exchange for donations.

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