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Fire and Rescue Association explains finances amid questions

September 28, 2011|By DAVE McMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com

CLEAR SPRING — Dozens of members from fire departments across the county turned out Wednesday night as the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, under fire for excessive overhead expenses and hoarded cash, explained its finances.

The association reported at the meeting held at the Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Department that it currently has a balance of about $521,000 in its bank accounts.

The money is being held in a number of different accounts, which triggered a question from Bill Pennington, president of the Fairplay Volunteer Fire Co.

"You don't see that as a problem in the way you (track) money?" he asked.

"I don't know, I'm not the treasurer," said Glenn Fishack, president of the association.

Fishack said the money was being held in different accounts so it could be transferred quickly from one account to another to take advantage of better interest rates.

A man who has worked on the financial books for the association told the crowd there is nothing that has caused him to be "uncomfortable" in the way the reports have been prepared. But the man noted that audits are not conducted on the association's business.

However, the way the association has been doing business has raised concerns among some officials in the community.

On Sept. 20, state legislators slammed the association for excessive overhead expenses and its cash reserves and 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 has said.

The meetings come as The Herald-Mail is preparing 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.

 At Wednesday's meeting, some of the figures that have been reported in conjunction with the association's business were called into question, including the 20 percent allocation of gaming funds that are retained by the association.

L. Jason Baer, former president of the association, said the association actually only receives 10 percent of the gaming funds.

Pennington also asked about a reported miscellaneous account held by the association that had about $20,000 in it.

Pennington said it was his understanding that Murray wanted to know the reasoning behind the account, and Murray did not receive an answer.

"I'm a little concerned about that," Pennington said.

But Pennington said after the meeting that he learned during the meeting that the miscellaneous account did not exist.

Pennington said he was feeling that all the controversy surrounding the association was over a purported problem "where one doesn't exist."

Fishack addressed the crowd several times during the meeting and said that the association has obtained an attorney.

"If we work together, and work as a team, we can come out of this OK," Fishack said.

But he said if the various fire companies are pulling different directions, it will be problematic. He asked who will lose if that happens.

"Everybody in this room," Fishack said.

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