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Accountability needed in bingo operations

November 04, 2009

Every taxpayer in Washington County contributes to local fire and rescue operations. Beyond that, many more voluntarily give, some out of the goodness of their hearts, some as a hedge against a big bill should they ever need emergency service.

Because they are publicly supported, this means fire and rescue companies must be publicly accountable for every single dollar in their budgets, whether it comes from government grants and county gaming commission payouts, or is raised "on the side" through bingo and bake sales.

For more than 30 years, however, the Washington County Commissioners have known this accountability does not exist, particularly in the cash-intensive gambling business.

And for more than 30 years, the commissioners have looked the other way. In a sense, it's not in the commissioners' interest to interfere; the more that fire and rescue companies raise in their gambling operations, the less pressure there will be for a politically distasteful emergency services tax.

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But there is growing historical evidence that their continued aversion to facing facts is tantamount to dereliction of duty on behalf of county taxpayers.

The lessons of the county tip jar situation still should be fresh in local minds. Under state law, an organization's tip jar proceeds were supposed to go mostly to charity, but a Herald-Mail investigation in the 1990s revealed that less that 10 percent of tip jar profits actually found its way into charitable hands. Until a new law was passed, the rest was finding its way into the organization itself, or into private pockets.

Now, twice in three years, audits have discovered problems at local fire company bingo operations.

In 2006, auditors couldn't account for $131,000 in bingo and tip jar sales at the Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Co. after reviewing records from 2004. An ensuing report pointed to "a serious deficiency in internal control since bingo and tip jar revenues are primarily in cash, and significant payments for winnings and compensation is made in cash from the revenues, with no accounting records to identify those transactions."

In addition, accountants said $50,000 in revenue vanished and could not be accounted for.

Clear Spring was mildly punished, and those in charge of the bingo operations were dismissed, although no one was charged with a crime.

Then, on Oct. 5, bingo operations at the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway briefly were suspended after a consultant apparently discovered accountability issues.

We say apparently because the company quickly swept the matter under a rug, while the commissioners stood by, their heads buried solidly in the sand.

Fire company officials would not name the consultant, and simply said it was time for "a change, new faces, new people, more accountability."

To a degree, we do applaud Halfway's proactive investigation and its determination to keep its own house in order.

But too many questions remain: What happened? Was money missing? If so, how much and how long was this problem going on? Who was responsible? If there was wrongdoing, why isn't anyone being punished?

The public absolutely has the right to know the answers to these questions, and the commissioners have an absolute responsibility to find out.

Halfway always has seemed to run the tightest of fire-and-rescue ships. If problems can arise there, they can arise anywhere. These lingering questions are a disservice not only to the taxpayers, but also to the men and women who so bravely put their lives on the line every day.

If funds disappear out of a fire-and-rescue budget, that means less equipment, less protective gear and more danger for emergency responders.

Indeed, accountability is in the interest of everyone, save perhaps for the people who do not want to be held accountable.

On the county level, we've had 30 years of promises; 30 years of studies; 30 years of consultant reports; 30 years of hearing that accountability is a real problem and that something needs to be done. However, if the county has made any tangible effort toward accountability, the lessons of the past several years is that their efforts are not working.

If any fire and rescue operation should protest strict county oversight, that in itself is a pretty clear indication that strict oversight is needed. Sunshine is only worrisome to those with something to hide, and it is way past time for the commissioners to demand that the fire and rescue companies publicly account for every last dime.

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