Banning Fire Museum – The Untold Story
8/21/15 – After having been provided with a City owned building free of charge for 4 years, “Fire Memories Museum” (FMM) has decided to leave Banning.
In this article we will examine the Museum’s legacy in Banning and what appears to be the background of their departure. Never reported by the local media, some of the details do not paint a pretty picture.
$ 100,000 IN BANNING TAXPAYER SUBSIDIES NOT ENOUGH FOR FMM
“Fire Memories Museum” has been operating out of a City owned former Fire Station, which they rented from the City of Banning for $ 1/year. According to the Museum’s tax return (view here, pg. 7, pos.3), the true rental value of the Station amounted to $ 24,000 per year. Therefore, the Banning taxpayer subsidized the Museum’s operation with approximately $ 100,000 in total over 4 years.
Readers of this website are well aware that the previous City council, lead by Ex-Mayor Don Robinson (along with Debbie Franklin, Bob Botts, Barbara Hanna), went out of their way to let their cronies use City property without ever collecting rent. Whether it was the Banning Cultural Alliance, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the San Gorgonio Pass, the Banning Chamber of Commerce or FMM, one dollar per year seemed to be the going rate. Needless to say, Banning could never afford it.
With this in mind, the current City council recently tried to reduce, but not eliminate, the subsidies to Fire Memories. However, a City subcommittee consisting of Council members Art Welch and George Moyer was unable to reach an agreement with the operators, who have since decided to leave, citing lack of “support” by the City, (view FMM press release).
TAXPAYER SUBSIDIZED HOBBY OR COMMUNITY ASSET ?
Fire Memories has a substantial collection of antique fire trucks and equipment, but with 300 similar fire museums existing in the US today, the facility can hardly be considered unique.
Such a collection naturally comes with high maintenance costs that would be a huge financial burden, even for a wealthy collector. So the owners decided to operate their collection as a non-profit organization. This way, they can get a tax deduction for every dollar they spend on their expensive hobby. The concept, in essence, is that of a major taxpayer subsidy.
But it did not stop there. The operators were also given a generous free rent deal by the City of Banning, that even included free landscaping.
Despite this “double subsidy” the museum only managed to be open 3 days a week for less than 20 hours total. In addition, it remained closed Sundays and shut down for an entire month during the summer due to “vacation”. It should also be noted that Banning residents, who so generously provided $100,000 in subsidies, were charged admission to visit.
This raises the question : did this museum benefit the public – or rather its operators and friends?
PARTY, PARTY , PARTY !
Supporters of the museum will argue that it provided children with an education about fire safety. On their Facebook page one can see images of children spraying water from fire hoses. But what exactly is educational about spraying water from a hose ?
The very limited opening hours of the museum cannot possibly justify its existence. Upon closer examination, the main focus of FMM may have been very different: taxpayer subsidies may have primarily been used for countless private events to which the public was not invited.
Such events held at the museum included numerous weddings, birthday parties as well as private parties for politicians, for example ex-councilman Don Robinson and current Mayor Debbie Franklin. The latter – conducted without the required City permit – consisted of over 80 invitees, allegedly had alcohol served and ended up with the tragic death of one of the participants (story).
Both council members (Franklin, Robinson) voted to provide the museum with free rent, only to turn around and use the venue for their personal purposes. This is yet another example of how corrupt Banning politicians operate.
COMPLAINTS FROM RESIDENTS
Nearby residents have complained about parking issues and about “this private organization receiving preferential treatment from the City” (source). The Museum has only 8 parking spaces up front which does not meet zoning requirements for a public venue (17.28.040C of Banning zoning ordinance requires 1 space for each 300 sqft of floor space = roughly 30 spaces for the 10,000 sqft. building).
It is indeed difficult to understand how countless private events benefit the taxpaying public. Why does the City allow for its government buildings to be used for any private parties or weddings? Is this proper use of our taxpayer resources? It appears that at least some members of the current City council may have had their doubts.
MUSEUM ACCUSED OF STEALING WATER FROM BANNING UTILITY AND WASTING IT DURING DROUGHT
In October of 2014, Fire Memories Museum was accused of tampering with and tapping into unmetered City owned fire hydrants without authorization. Facebook images of the museum
show hoses connected to City hydrants and museum officials spraying water apparently for fun – in utter disregard for California’s most severe drought in 100 years.
In an email of October 21, 2014 (click here to view), assistant Fire Marshall Doug Clarke demanded Douglas Hammer “cease and desist in using any City of Banning owned fire hydrants and water”.
The Fire Marshall also warned that Hammer’s unauthorized tapping into City fire hydrants may be considered “stealing water from the Banning Water District”. He pointed out that “allowing the water to run down the street” into the drain is seen as wasteful, especially given the fact that Hammer is “not paying for it”.
Furthermore, in his letter the Fire Marshall expresses his professional concern that the museum’s fire hydrant tampering has the potential of damaging Banning’s entire water infrastructure.
This is not the first time that a Banning non-profit helped itself to free utilities. Last year it was discovered that the Banning Chamber of Commerce received over $ 30,000 in free utilities over 7 years by way of a “handshake agreement” with corrupt City officials (story). One thing is for sure : the last thing Banning needs is for some politically connected freeloaders to take advantage of utility ratepayers or to mindlessly waste our precious water resources.
We attempted to contact Fire Memories President Douglas Hammer to specifically ask him about these very disturbing allegations. Pointing to his “Press Release” (view) Hammer refused to answer any of our questions and hung up the phone. It appears that in Mr. Hammer’s world, the public has no right to ask tough questions – all we are apparently good for is to subsidize his operation.
What is it – if anything – that Mr. Hammer has to hide? Did he steal water from Banning as the Fire Marshall suggested? And if so, when can the public expect him to make restitution? Is this Mr. Hammer’s way of saying “thank you” to the citizens of Banning, who so generously supported his museum for 4 years to the tune of $ 100,000 in free rent?
ALLEGED IMPERSONATION OF FIREFIGHTERS
According to Douglas Hammer’s previous public statements, he is a former firefighter. From what we can gather, however, Hammer was never a Fire Captain .
In several pictures Douglas Hammer displays the insignia of a CDF “Captain” during what appears to be a public event.
In one of the pictures former Mayor Don Robinson can been seen wearing what appears to be a fireman’s uniform (yellow turnout).
Unidentified operators of the museum could be observed publicly wearing official fireman’s helmets and gear on the I-10 freeway overpass.
The display of these insignia and uniform items could make a reasonable observer believe that the individuals pictured are officers or members of a Fire Department – when in fact they are not.
Section 538 (e) of the California Penal Code makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate a fire fighter :
BANNING POLICE DEPARTMENT WARNS FMM ABOUT REPEATED TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS
In 2014, the Banning Police Department received citizen complaints about the way the museum operated their vehicles on public streets. It was alleged that the museum vehicles were operated in a way that made them appear like authorized emergency vehicles, when in fact they were not. In short, the allegations pointed to the museum having no regards for the law.
The Banning Police Department sent out one of their officers to the home of Douglas Hammer. The officer pointed out that the California Vehicle Code made it unlawful to do the following :
- Parking on overpass. On two different occasions the museum parked up to 8 heavy fire trucks (each estimated 20 ton+) on the I-10 freeway overpass. This endangered the motoring public on I-10, as it exceeded the safe design limit of the bridge. This is why the Sec. 22500 (k) VC makes it unlawful to park on an overpass.
- Parking in red zones. Photos show that the museum repeatedly disregarded no-parking restrictions in the same way real emergency vehicles would. There is even evidence of a private wedding ceremony being conducted while parking multiple fire trucks in a red zone. Parking in
red zones is unlawful under Sec. 22500 (i) VC.
- Forward facing red lights, Sec. 30 and 27606 VC. Non-emergency vehicles are not allowed to display forward facing red lights when operated on public streets, even when the lights are not activated. Such lights need to be covered. The purpose of this law is to avoid confusion with real emergency vehicles.
- Displaying the word “FIRE” or “FIRE DEPARTMENT” on non-emergency vehicles is unlawful under Sec. 27905 VC. The word needs to be covered while operating on public streets. Again, the purpose of this law is to avoid confusion with real emergency vehicles.
Government officials, like the assistant Fire Marshall and Banning PD, have pointed to possible unlawful or even rogue conduct by Fire Memories. Unauthorized tampering with our fire hydrants, wasting water during a drought, while not paying for it, or the impersonation of official emergency personnel make for some very unsettling allegations.
By their conduct, this private organization seems to send Banning the message that they are above the law. Did they count on some of Banning’s corrupt politicians to cover for them?
What is even more disturbing is the fact that the alleged violators received $ 100,000 worth of City subsidies. Maybe, after all, the museum’s departure may be a blessing in disguise for Banning.
While the museum may still have a hardcore cult following, the general public may be reminded of the old saying, that “not all that glitters is gold”.
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