Now is time for Commissioners to demand accountability

February 11, 2012

Gambling-tax revenue in Washington County is divided into two piles. Half goes to local nonprofits, as apportioned by the Washington County Gaming Commission. The other pile of gambling revenue, however, for years has been blindly handed to the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, which parceled the cash to local emergency-services companies while, as we have seen, keeping a nice slice on the side for itself for projects that might or might not be a wise use for the funds.

Once the cash passed into the association’s hands, its trail disappeared. The potential for trouble, or the perception of trouble, was obvious.

Indeed, it was obvious to state lawmakers a couple of months ago when they objected to the association’s accumulated wealth (better than a half-million dollars), which came at the expense of individual companies.

Last week, lawmakers voted to support a bill that would tighten accountability at the association level.

The delegation’s bill, if passed, would empower the County Commissioners to be the greatest agents of accountability by granting them financial oversight over the association in addition to financial oversight it already has over the individual fire and rescue companies.

Of course, the commissioners have not even made good use of the accountability rules they have now as this newspaper showed when it reported that the office that receives the fire and rescue companies’ financial reporting forms is not even reviewing them.

If the county steps up its accountability efforts, the Washington County delegation’s actions could be a springboard to major improvement.

The delegation balked at this newspaper’s assertion last week that it could have gone further to extend this trail of transparency to the next level, the fire and rescue companies themselves.

Perhaps we were not clear enough in a Tuesday editorial and left it to be interpreted that the legislature has the authority to require fire companies to submit their entire budgets for review.

We understand the delegation’s argument that it has no specific authority to parse individual companies’ budgets. The legislature does not have that authority because the fire companies are nonprofit organizations, and that gaming money is a relatively small percentage of the fire companies’ budgets.

As it stands, the delegation is leaving it to the fire and rescue association to be a watchdog over how its member companies spend their portions of the public gaming money, and the delegation has empowered the County Commissioners to keep an eye on the association.

The delegation can only do so much before the commissioners have to demand greater accountability, but the commissioners have yet to show a will to fulfill that role when it comes to the finances of the fire and rescue system.

Instead, the commissioners have been deathly silent through the months and years as questions and irregularities have dogged the Washington County fire and rescue system. The silence has been amplified by two decades of county inaction and subsequent financial foibles.

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