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Still no answers at Halfway Fire Co.

July 27, 2010

The Washington County Commissioners like to pretend they have nothing to do with local fire and rescue companies and that they're innocent as babes when something goes terribly wrong.

Until they realize that neither of those postulates is true, we will continue to see situations such as the bingo fiasco at the Halfway Fire Co., which appears to be more and more troublesome as time goes by.

Halfway President James Kimble would only say that a "good portion" of its funding was lost, somehow, in its bingo operation, although he cautioned that there is a difference (which he failed to explain) between money that is "missing" and money that has been "taken."

Yes, that fire department bankroll is always in the last place you look.

Inexplicably, the commissioners continue to play this game of cat and mouse with Halfway, probably because they realize that anything that makes Halfway look bad makes them look bad. The public, wisely and accurately, does not make the commissioners' distinction between county government and county fire service.

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The commissioners' course of action should be clear. They should haul Halfway brass before them in a public meeting and ask what happened, how much was lost and how the company plans to get its financial house back in order.

If they refuse to answer these simple questions, then the commissioners should shut down its bingo operations permanently and redirect county funding to neighboring departments.

But instead, the commissioners continue to enable the beast. Only Commissioner Kristin Aleshire has suggested that a financial sword be dangled over Hallway's head until the seemingly endless state police and IRS investigation of Halfway is complete.

This week the other commissioners said they would move forward with a new Emergency Medical Services staffing subsidy, even though they have no idea as to the extent of Halfway's financial mess.

The company's treasurer would only say that the company "is doing a little better than we were." That doesn't sound terribly encouraging to us.

In agreeing to shovel more money in Halfway's direction, Commissioner Terry Baker said, "For me, the important thing here is the service level is very adequate."

So it doesn't matter that potentially thousands on thousands of dollars have vanished into thin air, so long as the company has gas to put in the truck and someone to point the hose.

This is an incredible statement for any serious public official to make. But Baker made it worse by congratulating Halfway for "an outstanding open dialogue."

If your head is already in the sand, burrowing in another couple of hundred feet probably doesn't matter all that much, but Baker appears to need a refresher course, so here goes:

After more than six months, state and federal authorities still haven't gotten to the bottom of the situation. Halfway has stonewalled the commissioners at every turn and played them for fools, counting, perhaps on the fact that the commissioners probably don't want to know the answers.

And Halfway suspended its chief for agreeing to, well, an "open dialogue" with authorities against Halfway's wishes.

If Baker views all this as evidence of a free flow of information, the sellers of swampland will be lining up at his door.

For our part, we have lost confidence in the leadership at the company and we are fast losing confidence in the commissioners' ability to get the situation at Halfway - or at any volunteer company where problems may arise - under control.

We still recognize the big picture. Volunteer fire and rescue workers are heroes in every sense of the word, and their service has saved county taxpayers millions of dollars over the years.

So perhaps the biggest crime perpetuated by Halfway is that poor leadership is sullying the reputation of men and women who have given so much to the people of this county.

They deserve better. Taxpayers deserve better. And we all deserve commissioners who are willing and able to stand up for both groups.

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