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Trial focuses on Ryneal's finances

June 13, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - While reviewing Ryneal Fire Co. No. 1's financial records, which were obtained in part by a subpoena issued to Jefferson Security Bank, Martinsburg Finance Director Mark Spickler said he was concerned about several checks written out for cash.

Although some of the checks were for relatively small amounts, others were written for $200, $500, $650, $4,700 and $5,000, Spickler testified Thursday during the third day of the City of Martinsburg v. Ryneal civil trial.

Testimony is expected to resume today.

Along with the checks written for cash, sometime after the relationship between Ryneal and the city crumbled, Ryneal President Mary Helmick obtained a $24,500 cashier's check from Ryneal's account, Spickler testified.

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During a deposition, Helmick said the money was to be used to open an account at a Hagerstown bank, Spickler said.

Wanda Grove testified Thursday that the checks written out to cash were for charitable and legitimate purposes. Grove is Helmick's mother, and is active in Ryneal, she said.

Donations were made to the families of firefighters killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; to West Virginia State Trooper Bobby Elswick, who was shot in the head while on duty; Relay For Life and March of Dimes. Also, Ryneal is the business partner of Burke Street Elementary School.

Portions of the larger checks were used to give each firefighter a $100 cash bonus at Christmas, she said.

Spickler testified that such cash bonuses would violate city and state ethics laws, although he said Ryneal probably had no ill intentions in mind. However, public employees are not allowed to accept gifts valued at more than $25, Spickler said.

A private corporation, Ryneal has supplied equipment to the Martinsburg Fire Department for decades.

In the trial, at stake is who owns three ambulances and a rescue squad truck. Altogether, the vehicles cost more than $600,000, excluding supplies.

Ryneal, for years, collected and kept the fees charged to those who need to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. In return, they bought fire and rescue equipment for the fire department.

In February, city officials wanted to take over that billing and collecting and requested that Ryneal turn over the vehicles, along with all the money in its bank account.

Countering that they owned the vehicles, Ryneal officials refused. In March, city officials filed the lawsuit.

Spickler, who testified for about three hours, said he never thought about what happened to ambulance user fees until a question about them was poised during an unrelated lawsuit more than four years ago.

After researching the issue, he said he had concerns about liability, or who would be sued if a problem arose.

Apologizing to the two attorneys present in the courtroom, Spickler said one "ambulance-chasing lawyer" could cause serious problems.

At least seven firefighters must work during each of the department's 24-hour shifts, and at least two must answer ambulance calls. If all three ambulances were in use, it meant one person could be left at the station, Spickler said.

Should a fire call some in, response time could be delayed. If someone was injured or died in that fire, Spickler said he wondered how he would explain that the other firefighters were out generating money for another agency.

Exactly how much money was generated is not known.

Records from Ryneal's billing agency indicate that in the year 2000, Ryneal received around $241,000 in ambulance user fees. In 2001, it received nearly $300,000, while in 2002 it received $268,000.

Spickler said he believed those fees and money generated from a public meeting room that Ryneal rents out were its only revenue sources.

When Grove testified, though, she said Ryneal has held raffles, boot drives and other fund-raisers. Years ago, bingo games were played, she said.

Whether the trial will end today, as first expected, is uncertain. Circuit Judge David Sanders said it might continue into next week.

Members of the six-person jury will reconvene at 8 a.m. today.

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