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County must take control of fire and rescue system

May 25, 2010

The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway suspended Chief Jeff Ringer on May 3 because, his lawyer says, he talked to police and the IRS outside of the presence of the company's attorney.

Halfway has that right, but at this point, Ringer would appear to be the least of the department's worries. If events have moved along to the point that the Maryland State Police and the Internal Revenue Service are involved, the chances for a happy ending would appear to be slim.

But as bad as this might be for Halfway, the news could be far worse for Washington County Commissioners and Washington County taxpayers.

The commissioners are about to reap the bitter fruit of three decades of inaction - that would be 30 years or more during which the various commissioners have known there were serious problems in our fire and rescue system, but largely failed to do anything about it.

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It is perhaps the sitting commissioners' bad luck that the fire-hall gambling issue is about to blow up under its watch, although this does not make them any less culpable.

While we ordinarily would not wish the IRS on anyone, this investigation might be what it takes to finally bring some manner of regulation to bingo and tip jars run by fire departments - just as order was restored to taverns and clubs in the 1990s.

We also hope for a thorough, but timely resolution to the state police investigation, which began at some point after an alarm was raised six months ago.

Further, we would suggest that these operations might be ripe for a special grand jury investigation to rid the system of rot once and for all. This would serve the dual purpose of punishing the cheaters and the skimmers, while vindicating the fire companies that run a tight ship.

Those companies that do things right are unfairly tainted by those that don't, and they deserve to be rewarded with a clean bill of health.

But since the commissioners will not act, the judicial system must. This isn't just about the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway because two very real outcomes could affect us all.

First, this could be the beginning of the end of volunteer fire companies. Bingo and tip jars are a major source of funding, and if gambling goes away, the county might have little choice but to enact a fire tax, which would inevitably lead to a paid-firefighter system - a model that has caused major and perhaps unsustainable costs in other counties.

And second, that's what makes the situation in Halfway so dangerous. The State of Maryland is just itching to get its mitts on our locally generated gambling profits, or at least a share of it.

A scandal at Halfway, or anywhere else in the system, might just be the excuse lawmakers are looking for to step in and take control. That would affect not just fire companies, but also the charities and nonprofits that receive millions of dollars in tip jar revenue.

In short, subtract gambling and there is a tanker engine full of "free" money that will have to be made up for in taxes.

This is what makes the commissioners' inaction so egregious. Some on the commission are happy to tell us how they can cut the budget when it involves paring a ball field or some other inconsequential line item.

The potential here is for a terrible increase on the local tax burden. And although the commissioners last year took some steps to add accountability measures as conditions for the companies to receive subsidies, more discussion and more action is needed.

This might be the county's last chance to step in and implement some meaningful control over the entire fire and rescue system, as should have been done many years ago. There has been too much smoke and too many fires surrounding firehouse gambling over the years, and it looks as if something is about to give.

The judicial system and IRS, to name two, are unlikely to demonstrate the county commissioners' fear of action. Nor should they.

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