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Md. lawmakers say county fire, rescue association should slim down

At meeting on gaming fund distributions, delegation members say higher percentage of funds should go to volunteer companies

September 20, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Del. John P. Donoghue, right, listens during a meeting of the Washington County delegation, Washington County Commissioners, and representatives of Washington County fire and rescue companies.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Slamming the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association for excessive overhead expenses and hoarded cash, state legislators Tuesday asked the county's volunteer fire and rescue companies to consider ways to streamline the association, leaving more funds for fire and rescue operations.

The suggestion came during a meeting of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, four state legislators and fire and rescue officials to discuss the distribution of county gaming fund revenue to volunteer fire and rescue companies.

Currently, under state law, the county gives 50 percent of each year's gaming fund — revenue collected from tip-jar gambling — to the fire and rescue association for distribution to the county's 27 volunteer fire and rescue companies.

But the association's financial reports show that about 20 percent of that allocation is retained by the association instead of being distributed to volunteer companies, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.

The association's fiscal 2010 report shows it has about $628,000 in cash and investments, $552,000 of which is undesignated, Murray said.

Del.John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said the state law governing distribution of gaming revenue does not specify how the association must use or distribute the funds, but the intent of the law was not to "open bank accounts and have over $600,000 sitting in an account that could be used for the companies."

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said it was inappropriate for large sums to sit in accounts while many fire companies are struggling financially.

"I can tell you from this seat that when we go back to Annapolis, there will be adjustments made, if I have anything to do with it, when it comes to the legislation," Myers said. "We have to amend things so we have accountability, because, I tell you, if we don't do something here as this body in Washington County, trust me, the people in Annapolis will take care of it for us."

County officials have been careful to avoid any potential criticism of the gaming program since 2007, when a Howard County delegate introduced an unsuccessful bill proposing a state takeover of Washington County's tip-jar gaming as part of a plan to plug a budget deficit.

"In these days and times when people are looking for money everywhere they can, we must be able to go to Annapolis and say, 'We have the highest level of accountability,'" said Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington.

Tuesday's meeting came as The Herald-Mail prepares to publish stories from a yearlong investigation into the finances and financial reporting practices of the county's fire and rescue companies and the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

In recent years, gaming fund distributions to the fire and rescue association have been about $1 million a year. In the last fiscal year, the total was $948,684.71.



Baer: Money earmarked

The fire and rescue association's attorney, Bruce Poole, said the association was not notified of Tuesday's meeting until Thursday and, due to short notice, the association's accountant was unable to attend.

"The monies that are being kept now are for what I think are very legitimate purposes," Poole said.

According to former association President L. Jason Baer, the association has been setting aside money for replacement vehicles, communication system upgrades and the eventual construction of a training center.

"No, we do not have $600,000 that's sitting around waiting for someone to take, because they've (the funds) been earmarked, and when we get into this thing with the training center, that's going to take everything that's in that and more besides," Baer said.

The fire and rescue training center is a roughly $12 million capital project which is being considered for construction on the campus of Hagerstown Community College.

Myers and Serafini questioned whether the county needs a training center.

"As much as a training center might be a nice thing — we would love to have one — we have to realize that's maybe not a viable option at this time," Serafini said.

Murray suggested officials consider changing the law so gaming funds are distributed directly to the fire and rescue companies, which could then elect to contribute funds to the association for the administrative functions it provides.

"If you distribute funds to member companies, and the association needs $200,000 a year, then the member companies that are the association can fund that $200,000 a year; that's up to them," Murray said. "But it should not be up to the association how much they distribute to the companies."



Transferring responsibilities?

Delegation members also asked the fire companies to discuss whether they would like to transfer to the county many of the administrative responsibilities currently handled by the association, such as physicals, information technology, maintaining a rehab unit, overseeing fire police and running a vocational program at Washington County Technical High School.

As an alternative, the association could continue to handle those functions and distribute the gaming funds, but with added financial accountability measures and caps on how much of the gaming distribution could be retained by the association, Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said.

In that scenario, the companies should also consider whether they want those new rules to come from within the association or to be incorporated into gaming legislation in Annapolis, Shank said.

"There's any number of ways we can get to a successful resolution here," Shank said. "I think the point that you're hearing loud and clear is we're not entirely satisfied with the status quo right now. I would like to see some movement toward this direction, and how that takes place — whether it's option A, B, or C — I would really think it's better coming from you all than it is coming from the county commissioners or the delegation."

Commissioners Ruth Anne Callaham and Terry Baker both said they would prefer to see the problem addressed locally without intervention in Annapolis.

Any plan in which gaming funds are to be distributed directly to the companies would require state legislation, the delegates said.

Serafini said he would schedule a meeting between the delegation and fire company representatives within the next six weeks to discuss their preference.

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