Fire and rescue association to propose financial reporting standards

November 09, 2011|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU |
  • The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Hagerstown is seen in this file photo.
The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Hagerstown is seen in this file photo.

HAGERSTOWN — The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association is hoping to keep control of fire and rescue companies’ share of the county gaming fund — and keep government out of it.

In a meeting Thursday night with county government officials and state lawmakers, the association is planning to propose an agreement in which it sets financial reporting standards and promises to meet them, association attorney D. Bruce Poole said.

But two county lawmakers already dismissed the idea of such an agreement on Wednesday.

Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, said he wants to propose Maryland legislation enabling county government to set up a new system for distributing gaming money to the 27 local volunteer fire and rescue companies.

The legislation would allow the county to do for fire and rescue companies what it did in 1995 in setting up a commission to distribute gaming fund money to local charities, Donoghue said.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said legislation is needed “to restore accountability and transparency” to the distribution of public gaming money to the volunteer companies.

“Whether or not the association still gets and distributes the money, and (that money) has to be approved by the county commissioners, or the county government would do (the distribution) somehow, the main goal is accountability and oversight,” Shank said.

The meeting at the Smithsburg fire station will be the first between the association, the county government and local lawmakers since late September when the elected officials slammed the association for its financial practices.

The association has taken a large chunk of the millions in public gaming money that lawmakers say they originally intended to go to the association’s 27 member volunteer fire and rescue companies, The Herald-Mail determined in a yearlong investigation.

A 1995 law — because it has no restrictions — gave the association the right to do whatever it wants with the money, without telling local government.

The association provides a range of services to benefit the volunteer companies, sets standards for fire and rescue safety, and supervises the distribution of most of the gaming money to the companies themselves.

But the newspaper’s investigation showed that the association doesn’t tell the county government what it gives each of the companies, or how it spends up to half the money it keeps.

And, as gaming has declined, the association has given each company less, while its own cash and investments have grown — to more than $600,000 a year ago. Association officials have said the money includes $275,000 to help build a fire and rescue training center.

Agreement sought
In a meeting Sept. 20, local lawmakers urged fire and rescue officials to discuss what they want to do to make the system accountable and meet with lawmakers as soon as possible. Thursday night’s meeting is the result.

In preparation for it, association leaders and its members have met in recent weeks to help attorney Poole draft a proposed agreement between the association and the county government.

Asked recently about what was being drafted, Poole said the proposal is a response to financial accountability issues raised about the association in The Herald-Mail’s stories, as well as questions raised by county and state legislative officials.

“I don’t think the association feels it has done anything to cause loss of trust,” Poole said.

Poole couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, and an advance copy of the proposal wasn’t available.

But in the earlier interview, Poole said that, above all, the association and its members don’t want the money to be distributed by the county government.

“The one chord that is common to all within fire and rescue is they do not want government to take over the actual dispensing of these funds,” Poole said.

“There is deep concern and, in some quarters, mistrust of having the county government take the funds and dole it back out. They feel the bureaucracy would expand and fewer dollars would come down to the companies,” Poole said.

Restoring accountability
But Donoghue and Shank said they have strong reservations about the association’s failure to keep its financial decisions open to all.

They said they don’t like it that the association has kept 20 percent of fire and rescue’s share of the public gaming money, building up a large cash and investments balance.

Donoghue and Shank said they think the association should continue in operation, but what it is to do is still to be decided.

Donoghue said that instead of the association drawing 20 percent “that was never in the legislation, maybe put (the association’s) share at 3 or 4 percent.”

Both lawmakers said they would “have comfort” if the  distribution of the money to the fire and rescue companies is set up in the same way as the county gaming commission does for local charities.

Del. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, who is chairman of the county’s legislative delegation, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

But Serafini said recently he is concerned the association’s proposal “is not a binding agreement.”

Therefore, Serafini said he is willing to consider changing the gaming law to ensure the restoration of accountability and public confidence in the system.

“We want to make sure when (fire and rescue companies) come and ask for support, that people have confidence in them, because that’s the problem,” Serafini said. “We don’t want anything that brings that into question.”

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