A fire department serving areas around Argyle could run out of money for personnel in a couple of months if it can’t receive money from outside sources.

Sam Johnson, captain of Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 and president of Argyle Professional Fire Fighters Local 5190—affiliated with the International Association of Fire Fighters—talked about the challenges in late May of finding the necessary money. He spoke as the association president and not in any capacity as the fire department representative.

Difficulties began when former Argyle Fire District Chief Troy Mac Hohenberger falsified the ESD’s budget and left the department with an operation deficit of between $1.5 million-$1.9 million, Johnson said. Hohenberger pleaded guilty May 24 to federal theft of funds and theft or embezzlement from an employee benefit plan. Hohenberger awaits sentencing. He was indicted in November.

Denton County Precinct 4 Commissioner Dianne Edmondson said the county is statutorily prevented from lending money to the ESD No. 1 or other publicly supported entities, such as cities or school districts. She said county officials will try to determine whether there is any legal way they can be of help to the ESD No. 1.

The county awaits the audits from a third-party auditor for the ESD No. 1 finances, she said, and no formal discussions have occurred yet with the ESD and the commissioners and the county judge.

“The meetings will depend on what the actual third-party audit has to say, and there are things we have been advised of that will be able to stretch the funds for the ESD over several months,” she said. “It’s a very sad and bad situation, thanks to the embezzlement by the former chief. ... We are definitely committed as a county to seeing what needs to be done.”

She said “major changes” were made to the ESD board, a “board that apparently [had] not noticed any of the problems and had not kept good records, etc., so we made changes there.” She said there’s a good board now, and it “is on the right track.”

“We feel that with the cooperation of [the ESD’s] member municipalities as well as the county, that we’re going to be able to make things good for the people who are served by these folks,” she said.

Denton County appoints all the commissioners on the ESD board, Johnson said, and the county receives the ESD audit annually.

“We’re pretty much in a position where we’re going to have to make changes, or we’re going to have to require funds,” Johnson said.

He said the county, after Hohenberger was arrested last year, along with three other towns pledged that department firefighters would not have to go without paychecks. In the fire service, about 85%-90% of operational costs involve payroll, he said.

“It is our intention that no firemen in Emergency Services District No. 1 will miss a paycheck—that’s our intention,” Edmondson said, noting that officials want to see what the numbers will be and how much money will be needed.

No department firefighters have quit during this process, and the communities and residents have been supportive, Johnson said.

“We don’t know what the future looks like, but the firemen here have no intentions of abandoning the citizens regardless of what comes forward,” he said.

The department has funding until August. Denton County Commissioners Court is committed to transparency in government and in this situation, Edmondson said.

“We’re working through every option available,” Johnson said, noting officials are “trying to determine if we’re able to draw equity out of fire stations through refinances to just be able to sustain.”

He said he thinks the town of Northlake likely should be able to come forward with assistance, and he said he hopes the towns of Bartonville and Argyle will as well.

Johnson said he thinks the problems harming the department are a result of negligence of the former board and former fire chief. He said department officials are trying to arrange a budget that balances, and “obviously it doesn't.”

The department has received a $300,000 contribution from the Lantana Education Foundation, Johnson said, and that entity is the only one that has come forward so far to offer help. ESD No. 1 covers Lantana. ESD No. 1 covers 56.5 square miles, Johnson said, and the central station is in Argyle.

In November, Hohenberger was indicted for federal violations in the Eastern District of Texas, U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston announced in a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Texas. The indictment charged Hohenberger with multiple federal violations related to misuse and theft of funds from the Argyle Fire District, Inc. operating account, along with making false statements to the Department of Labor, the news release states.

During his time as chief, Hohenberger is alleged to have taken money from the operating account of the fire district—which received federal funds in the form of Medicare reimbursements—and used over $490,000 of those funds to pay personal credit card bills, the indictment charged. Johnson said this money was taken over a period of few years beginning in 2018.

“The indictment also alleges these personal credit card expenses included cash advances at casinos, payments related to a family member’s business in Hawaii, and other personal uses,” the release states. “Hohenberger is also alleged to have failed to fund firefighter retirement accounts in the time required by federal regulations, and thus embezzled or stole the funds, and that he made false statements related to the ERISA-qualified firefighter retirement plan on a form submitted to the Department of Labor.”