Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand recently determined that Duane Zenk improperly arranged for public funds to be used to support a radio tower for the Crawford County Firefighters Association (CCFFA).
The Crawford County Board of Supervisors is now in negotiations with the CCFFA for ownership of the Ridge Road tower and access to the land, owned by the CCFFA, on which it sits.
In all, Sand identified $280,000 of E911 funds that were improperly used to pay bills related to the tower, which was constructed in 2016.
E911 funds come from a surcharge on telephone bills.
Zenk was acting as the Crawford County E911 Service Board chairman at the time; the state auditor noted a “potential conflict of interest” between Zenk’s responsibilities to E911 and also to the CCFFA, in which he has a leadership role.
There doesn’t seem to be anything “potential” about the $280,000 public asset that ended up in private hands due to Zenk’s efforts, however.
Conflict of interest rules exist to keep an organization’s personnel from serving the interests of other organizations with which they are involved.
Zenk did exactly that when he used his paid position with E911 to serve the interests of the CCFFA.
Assistant County Attorney Martha Sibbel has told the supervisors that Zenk shouldn’t be involved in the tower ownership discussions because of the conflict of interest issue.
Supervisor Jean Heiden said on Tuesday that the CCFFA told her that the supervisors can’t tell them who they can and cannot have negotiate for them.
“Are they talking about Duane when they say that?” asked Supervisor Ty Rosburg.
“Pretty much,” was Heiden’s response.
Why is Duane Zenk still involved with the E911 service board?
The county recently approved a payment of $4,500 for his services as the E911 board’s consultant during April, May, and June.
Until 2018, he was the board’s representative from Denison and was paid $800 per month to be the board chairman; former Denison Mayor Jared Beymer removed him as Denison’s representative, but the E911 board quickly hired him back as their consultant and added $700 per month to his pay.
$1,500 per month is a pretty good rate for the E911 Service Board to pay someone who was caught trying to give away an expensive Crawford County/E911 asset to his preferred private entity.
Zenk has been trouble for the board of supervisors for the last few years.
He was the leader for the county’s new land mobile (LMR) radio system for several years after the supervisors approved millions of dollars of spending for the project.
In early 2018, the supervisors told Zenk to rename channel five of the LMR system to “EMS Ops” from “TAC 2” as it had been initially designated.
Zenk didn’t make the change; six months later the supervisors had to have a formal vote to order him to make the change – and so the county was charged $5,000 to reprogram radios that had been programmed with “TAC 2” after the supervisors told him the first time to make the change.
When the county hospital requested that the designation of channel 1 on the LMR system be changed from “Fire Paging” to simply “Paging,” Zenk told the supervisors that the decision wasn’t up to the county because the channel 1 frequency is owned by the City of Denison.
When the question of the channel name went before the Denison City Council in an excruciating two-hour meeting, Zenk and his son, Tim Zenk, argued against the name change and explained that it would be expensive and labor intensive to change it.
Tim Zenk is the local representative for RACOM, the company chosen to construct the county’s new multimillion dollar radio system promoted by his father.
The Denison City Council voted to change the name of channel 1 to “FIRE EMS” to encourage cooperation between the firefighters and the hospital, contingent on the cost.
The change was never made.
Duane Zenk returned to the board of supervisors in April 2019 and told them the CCFFA members
had voted to instead change the name of channel 1 to “County Fire.”
His story about ownership of the frequency changed at that point – he said the towns owned it because each had to have a license to use it.
When pressed, he said the FCC owns the frequency.
The cost of the name change from Fire Paging to County Fire?
Duane and Tim Zenk deliberately wasted two hours of the city council’s time spreading a false narrative about the cost of a channel name change.
And the supervisors approved the name change and moved on.
Zenk quit the LMR project following the city council meeting.
Denison City Council member and CCFFA member John Granzen has repeatedly blamed Peggy Staley, and others who questioned the Ridge Road tower funding, with slowing down the LMR project – which he has said puts emergency responders’ lives at risk.
But questioning the funding and ownership of a tower that is already up and functioning does nothing to slow progress on the overall system.
The main reason the project slowed down was Duane Zenk, who quit over a name change he didn’t like (his stated reason was that Beymer had disrespected him).
The county then decided to put together an LMR advisory board, of which Zenk, inexplicably, was put in charge.
The LMR advisory board voted to dissolve itself in the fall of 2020 because of supposed concerns about adhering to public meetings laws.
Now the supervisors have to bargain with the CCFFA for access to an asset paid for with public funds - and it would seem the CCFFA wants Zenk or his son to negotiate the deal.
The state auditor said that CCFFA owes Crawford County about $18,000; Sand based that number on the amount that CCFFA collected from tower space rentals minus the amount they spent on tower upkeep.
Sand collected numbers through mid-2020, so the amount owed is now likely higher.
The CCFFA told the supervisors that they spent $16,000 for an electronics shelter and a generator at the beginning of the discussions on tower ownership.
What they haven’t told the supervisors is that the CCFFA received at least $105,700 in additional funds from E911 for “tower funding,” a generator, and “maint/tower usage” between 2000 and 2011, presumably for the old radio tower.
Sand said that a full audit had not been performed during the tower ownership investigation – and that such an audit might uncover other issues.
Such issues exist.
It appears E911 has been used as a slush fund for the CCFFA; a careful audit should be made of all E911 funds before any determination is made on a deal for access to the land on which the county’s tower sits.
Why haven’t the supervisors already asked for this?
The county may have already paid for the land.
If it comes to it, the county should use eminent domain and be done with it.
The CCFFA has indicated that they need funds to provide training events for Crawford County firefighters. The board of supervisors has indicated willingness to provide funding for such events. The firefighters should apply for funds from the supervisors as would any other entity. The request would almost certainly be granted.
Other organizations use that process with the supervisors all the time. A complicated lease arrangement is not required to provide the required funding.