Details to be ironed out for fire funding fix

November 13, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • Del. Andrew A. Serafini, the chairman of the Washington County legislative delegation, left, leads Thursday night's meeting with the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, Washington County Commissioners, and the Washington County delegation held at the Smithsburg Fire Hall.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

Though a meeting last week left state lawmakers and fire and rescue association officials on the same page about some issues related to the association's use of public gaming money, officials left the meeting with many details still to be negotiated.

"I think the important thing will be follow-up, and we'll have to follow up with principally the county officials because they're the ones who are going to know how this will work best," D. Bruce Poole, an attorney for the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said Friday.

At the meeting, held Thursday night between state, county and association officials at the Smithsburg fire hall, there was general agreement that accountability measures are needed. However, details about budget approval, money held in reserves by the association, enforcement responsibility and county takeover of association programs are still to be discussed and decided.

Correcting the law

At issue is wording in the state law governing the distribution of gaming proceeds in Washington County.

The law says half of the amount in each year's gaming fund — a portion of tip-jar proceeds turned over by taverns, restaurants and private clubs in the county — is to go to the fire and rescue association and half to nonprofit organizations.

While the law says the distribution to nonprofit organizations is "subject to any restrictions that the County Commissioners adopt by regulation," no such language is included for the fire and rescue half of the fund.

The omission gives the county no authority to address concerns that the association has been keeping 20 percent of the fire and rescue association share of the gaming fund for its own administrative and programming expenses, leaving less for volunteer companies.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, suggested Thursday that the delegation seek a change to the law applying the same "subject to any restrictions..." wording to the distribution to the association.

The commissioners and the association could then work out details of those restrictions at the local level, delegation members said.

"There is no reason why we would have any challenges or issues in Annapolis," Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said of Donoghue's suggested change. "This should be seen as no more than a corrective, technical change."

Delegation members agree that adding that language to the law is necessary for any agreement between the association and the county to be enforceable, Serafini said at the meeting Thursday.

Poole acknowledged a legislative change might be part of the solution.

"In light of everything that you all said tonight, it may be that you end up having some type of very stripped-down, clarifying legislation," Poole said at Thursday's meeting.

He said Friday that the association's initial reaction was that the proposed wording was "very workable."

Serafini said the next step for the delegation would be to draft the legislation, using Donoghue's suggestion as a starting point.

Regulatory agreement

Meanwhile, association and county officials will have to work out details of any restrictions the county will put in place.

Thursday night, Poole passed out a draft agreement he said he wrote after consulting with county staff.

Under his proposal, the fire and rescue association would be allowed to keep a "rainy-day" fund that would never exceed a maximum amount — starting at $100,000 and increasing by 3 percent each year.

The Herald-Mail has reported that the association's cash and investment balance had gone as high as $628,842 by July 2010.

Under Poole's plan, the association would report its budget to the county each year, would submit annual financial reports to the county and would report the amount of money it disburses to each member company. If the association failed to provide any of those reports, the county could withhold funding.

Asked in a recent interview how the county could withhold the gaming fund money that state law now requires be given to the association, Poole said the county could send it directly to the 27 fire and rescue companies.

It isn't clear how or whether that could be worked out.

Meanwhile, Serafini described a proposal in which the county would approve the fire and rescue association's budget before disbursing funding.

Serafini argued there was no need for the association to retain funds for the building of a training facility or for unforeseen emergencies — two of the reasons association officials have given for retaining gaming funds — because the county would take care of both.

However, Serafini said there is a "clear consensus" that there is a need to continue to have a volunteer fire and rescue association. Whether the association needs to retain vehicles or a building "is another matter to be decided at a local level," Serafini wrote in a summary handout distributed at Thursday's meeting.

The county commissioners have taken no position on the details of future regulation. They said Thursday they were at the meeting to listen and learn.

Differing views

Poole said Friday that the biggest discrepancy he saw between his proposal and Serafini's was that Serafini's proposal would have the commissioners approve the association's budget.

"That may be controversial, because the fire and rescue companies view this as a volunteer effort," he said.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, had the same concern. Parrott suggested that the commissioners should have input into, but not control over, the association's budget.

"I just want to make sure we don't give too much control of a nonprofit agency away to the county," Parrott said. "We do have to make sure (the commissioners) have review and oversight."

Serafini's suggestion that the association does not need reserves for emergencies also proved controversial.

"A lot of the companies will tell you they are threadbare, and real emergency (funding) circumstances can crop up in an instant, and they really don't have time to go through a lengthy ordeal to try to get money," Poole said Thursday. "The reality of county government and state government today is that, A, there's a lot of paperwork, and B, there's not a lot of money."

County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said he didn't think immediacy would be an issue because the county has procedures in place for fast turnaround of contingency funds for emergencies.

"We do $200,000 emergency repairs (to county property) on a day's notice," he said.

Still, some members of the delegation were open to the idea of the association keeping some money in reserves. Donoghue suggested the association keep 5 percent of the gaming distribution — about $50,000 a year, based on recent distribution totals — but later said he was open to Poole's $100,000 suggestion.

Open for discussion

While Poole's draft agreement would make the county's director of emergency services responsible for enforcing the agreement, Serafini suggested other options.

The gaming commission and the county director of budget and finance would be other candidates to receive and review financial reports, he said.

Another topic that remains to be discussed is whether the county will take over any association functions in the interest of efficiency. Discussion at a September meeting included a suggestion that the county might be able to perform some of the association's functions, such as administering physicals, more efficiently because of existing contracts or resources.

A fire association member at Thursday's meeting said he would be open to those partnerships if the county could prove the change would be more efficient.

"We have to come to some kind of a logical agreement with each group that's involved here and say, 'Let's do what's best for the citizens of our community' because it's their money that we're spending and we want to do it in the most responsible way," he said.

"Well said," Serafini responded.

Staff writer Arnold S. Platou contributed to this story.

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