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Gaming money oversight only done half right

February 07, 2012

Those familiar with the frustrations of repeating lessons that they assumed had been learned understand the need for patience.

So we will try to employ this virtue ourselves when we remind the Washington County delegation and County Commissioners for the umpteenth time that, where large sums of money are involved, it must be tracked at every step.

Without systematic accountability, there will always be questions. So for the protection of those who handle the money, not to mention for the protection of the money itself, transparency is necessary from the time it’s taken in to the time it’s spent.

This is why we are disappointed that the Washington County delegation has agreed that oversight of local gaming money is needed when it enters the hands of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, but not when it is passed on to the fire and rescue companies themselves.

Apparently, the lessons of the past decade have gone unlearned.

When the Washington County gaming fund was created, it regulated private-club gambling, but neglected to require an accounting of the money — half of all gambling income — that was to be transferred to the fire and rescue association. It never occurred to anyone at the time that the fire and rescue association could ever become part of the problem.

But a Herald-Mail investigation revealed that the association was sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars — money that it arguably should have been allocating to the fire and rescue companies themselves.

After a rather testy response from the association that its finances were nobody else’s business, the delegation correctly decided that a change in the law was required to make sure the association’s books were kept open. The legislation under consideration would require the County Commissioners to approve the fire and rescue association’s budget.

This is certainly a positive move, but the legislation pointedly avoids extending similar financial-reporting requirements to the companies themselves.

So the danger is that the delegation is only kicking the accountability can down the road.

While we respect emergency services responders for what they do for our community, most of them volunteer to be first responders, not to be accountants. History has shown that companies aren’t always equipped to handle large sums of money.

The county itself requires financial reports from fire and rescue companies, but has not seemed too enthusiastic about subjecting the reports to careful examination.

Indeed, if these individual reports offered any kind of strict accounting, then why would the fire and rescue association be so dead set against a state law that requires, in theory, something the companies are supposed to be doing anyway?

You don’t have to look too hard for an answer — the current financial reports are not taken seriously. In fact, companies that submit inaccurate reports just to meet a county deadline (and get paid) are rewarded, while those that hold onto their reports in the interest of accuracy are penalized.

If the legislation is not changed to demand strict accountability (and frequent, professional evaluation) at all levels of the process, the county in a few years might be right back where it started, when something at a local company goes financially awry. As has been shown every step of the way over the last 15 years, it’s only a matter of time.

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