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Art Callaham: 'Failure to communicate' is the issue

November 13, 2011

Firefighters and emergency services personnel have been the subject of many Herald-Mail stories in recent weeks. I’d like to take this space to recognize the valuable service that is rendered by this dedicated group of first responders. There are few better feelings than knowing your local fire company and emergency service group are staffed and on duty when you go to bed at night. Along with police, this is public safety at its finest.

I certainly don’t want to intimate that there are not evident accountability problems with fire and rescue record keeping. However, those problems have little to do with our community’s gaming law, or with the use of those funds to provide for part of our community’s public safety.

Before I publicly applaud our paid and volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel, let me review the apparent problem — at least to me — with our fire and rescue system. In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” the captain (Strother Martin) at the prison that housed Luke (Paul Newman) utters the famous quote: “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.”

In my opinion, our problem locally is just that — failure to communicate. Having spent several years looking at government processes both in the city and in the county, I believe our local gaming law that puts one half of the revenue raised to work in our local not-for-profits and the other one half to work for public safety is the best local gaming model in the state.

I cringe every time our local delegation mentions the word “gaming.” For the past several years, there has been a move among some members of the General Assembly representing other jurisdictions to capture our local “gaming” as another revenue source for the state. Quite frankly, our heavily Republican delegation does not, by itself, have the power to block a concerted effort to capture our state-class gaming program.

I cringe every time our local gaming law is part of a story about our fire and rescue association and our local fire and rescue companies. People downstate read The Herald-Mail and, as I have mentioned, are ready to pounce at the slightest suspicion of problems with a local process that, if left unfettered, competes with statewide gaming as a source of state revenue.

Our perceived fire and rescue problems have nothing to do with our gaming law, so let’s move to the accounting of funds. The entire hierarchy of fire and rescue operations receives funds (revenue) from various sources such as state, federal, Washington County (including gaming funds allocated by law), City of Hagerstown and the other local municipalities, private citizen donations, corporate donations, foundation grants and localized fund raising events such as carnivals, bingo, craft shows, bonanzas, bake sales, barbecues, etc. Some of these revenue sources are public funds.

Local fire and rescue companies are organized under federal IRS rules. Under those rules, there is an annual reporting commonly referred to as a “Form 990” that requires a full accounting of all revenue (whether public or private) along with a disclosure of where the funds go (expenses and such). The county requires a similar submission of information. Here is the first “failure to communicate.” Sometimes, these two reports don’t match or don’t report all or some of the information required.

The second “failure to communicate” is that some officials fail to read the reports. Some officials, and it is not just government officials or just fire and rescue officials, don’t question discrepancies between the reports or the timely submission of the reports. Trust me on this: If only 20 percent of what was reported by the newspaper is absolutely correct, there is enough “failure to communicate” to go around.

As a community, let’s quit the blame game. Get a group of accountants — not firefighters or rescuers — to perform a detailed audit of fire and rescue “books”  at all levels (companies, association, local, state and federal). Correct the discrepancies. Let the accountability chips fall where they may. And develop a process that will ensure no future failures in our ability to communicate.

Our fire and rescue personnel deserve accolades for their service, not a lingering suspicion about their ability as accountants or financial reporters.  

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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