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Forest Service says state may have paid too much

HELENA - An errant exercise machine has turned up a U.S. Forest Service computer glitch that could reduce Montana's $66 million share of the region's wildfire costs for 2003.

A representative with the Forest Service office in Missoula said Northern Region accountants are going to take a hard look at all of the bills, including those sent to the state of Montana, to find out if items were charged to the wrong entity and whether duplicate billing occurred.

This may or may not significantly reduce the $337 million estimated cost of fighting fires this year in Montana and Idaho, as well as the roughly $66 million billed to the state of Montana.

This year's federal firefighting bill to the state was the largest ever - so large that legislators and state officials commissioned an extensive state audit of the expenses.

"Normally we do find a few problems, and maybe have a dispute in some costs. That can go on for a while some years, especially when there are a lot of fires," said Paula Nelson, public affairs specialist with the Forest Service in Missoula. "But it appears that something else is wrong with the billing.

"Our system that we use came about in 2000, and it's my understanding they've found some significant problems with the bills sent out to the state. We don't know why yet, and we don't know how much money is involved.

"But when you look at our total fire charges - they were $337 million for the region - the costs just for contracting aircrafts and emergency equipment were about $196 million. So we are talking about a lot of money and a lot of bills that will be looked at," she said.

The Forest Service's billing problem came to light publicly this week with the discovery of a $694 charge to the state for a "Cross Bow" fitness machine. The Aug. 28 purchase was on the bill for the 13,400-acre Winslow Fire on the Beaverhead/Deerlodge National Forest near the Montana-Idaho border.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation receives bills from the Forest Service for the state's share of the firefighting costs, and usually audits the bill and returns it to the federal agency with questions about some of the charges. This amicable give-and-take can go on for months before a final bill is settled upon, according to Nelson and others.

But Bob Harrington, state forester for the DNRC, was surprised when questioned about the Cross Bow charge. He was adamant that it wasn't an item purchased by the state, and tracked down its origin Thursday. He also expressed curiosity when asked about numerous duplicate items on the state's bill.

Late Thursday, he said that a woman on the Beaverhead Forest acknowledged the fitness machine was a purchase made for the Madison Ranger District, and wasn't supposed to be on the state's bill.

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In addition, Harrington said the state had done some queries and found "some big errors and discrepancies in the bill."

It turns out the Beaverhead Forest correctly entered the information into the computer system so that the state wouldn't be charged for the exercise machine, which firefighters use to keep in shape when they're not on the fire lines. However, for some reason the computer kept sending the Cross Bow purchase out on the bill to the state.

"How did that transaction get charged to the fire to begin with?" Nelson asked. "And how it didn't get caught when it was sent to the state also has to be figured out."

The state bill for the Winslow fire alone also contained dozens of duplicate bills for staple guns, rental cars, sunflower seeds, office supplies, hotels, travel and meals.

Nelson said officials aren't sure if the glitch occurred only on the bills for the Winslow fire, or if it happened on all of the Forest Service bills. In addition, she's not sure if the federal agency has inadvertently paid out some of its own bills twice.

"Our government credit cards are through the Bank of America, and when we printed the bills from that there were duplications," Nelson said. "We have to find out why that happened, and whether there's any chance we paid the Bank of America twice."

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