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Fire company's honesty about riches could cost it public aid

Still, South Hagerstown might help another company

March 31, 2012|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU | arnoldp@herald-mail.com
  • South Hagerstown Fire Company
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

Jack Coffelt thought surely he’d be mobbed by excited government and fire leaders.

But in the nearly four months since a front page newspaper story noted that his volunteer fire company has riches to share, Coffelt has received not even one call from fire, rescue or government officials.

“I can’t figure it out,” said Coffelt, president of South Hagerstown Fire Co.

Just as bewildering, he said, is that even though his company has more than $600,000 in cash and investments and is debt-free, it still is receiving more than $50,000 a year in public aid.

This year, that includes $24,500 as a basic operating subsidy from Washington County’s government, and $27,447 as assistance, from the county Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association using money that comes from the county’s gaming fund.

Why is public money being given to a fire company that says it doesn’t need it right now?

A majority of the Washington County Commissioners told The Herald-Mail late last month that they will talk to the fire company about the situation.

“There is no defense if we’re continuing to send them $24,500 when they don’t need it,” Commissioner William McKinley said. “We need to look into that. ... My position is, not only should we, but we will.”

Commissioners John Barr, Ruth Anne Callaham and Jeffrey Cline agreed the situation needs to be addressed.

“These are the kinds of things that we need to be aware of,” Barr said, adding the county has “learned a lot” from The Herald-Mail’s yearlong examination of financial accountability in fire and rescue operations.

Until now, “that’s why you have some of this disparity between rich companies getting the same (subsidy) as the companies that have real needs,” Barr said. “And I think that’s what we’re kind of learning from this whole process.”


Falling on deaf ears

The leaders of South Hagerstown Fire Co. would far rather have a lot of volunteer firefighters than have a lot of money, Coffelt said.

With volunteers, they could spend the money for equipment and training to help in the city’s firefighting efforts, he said.

But the sad news is, the membership has dwindled so much that the company hasn’t had volunteer firefighters to respond to alarms since November 2009.

Those who do respond are the paid firefighters the city fire department assigns to work out of South Hagerstown’s fire station around the clock every day of the year.

So company leaders had an answer when the newspaper asked them last year about the $627,803 that financial records showed the company had by the end of its 2010 budget year — the most recent year for which records are publicly available.

The financial report South Hagerstown is required to give the county annually shows the company usually spends about $50,000 a year, but earns enough in subsidies and other revenue to increase its savings by as much as $40,000 a year.

When asked about that, company officials said they’d be willing to consider helping other local fire companies, many of whom are struggling financially.

“If the county would take and talk to us — the county association or the County Commissioners — yes, we do have a little bit of money to help with the other companies,” Coffelt said in a Dec. 12, 2011, story in The Herald-Mail.

“If the city would come around right now and say, ‘Hey, we would probably put another (fire engine) unit in your hall,’ I’m sure we’d have no problem — and would want to — of paying for that equipment,” he said in the story.

Coffelt also said in the story that South Hagerstown might be willing to have its public subsidies reduced.

“It’s a possibility and I’m surprised the association hasn’t brought that up,” he said.

So, Coffelt expressed surprise that months later, neither the association nor the county nor the city nor any local fire company leader has called to talk to him about South Hagerstown’s offers.

“No, absolutely not, there’s never been any calls from them. Never been any calls, ‘Hey, Jack, let’s have a meeting,’” Coffelt said on March 20. “I just wonder why.”

The newspaper called local officials to find out.


What they say

Here’s what they said:

• Cline said he’s surprised that none of the other fire companies called South Hagerstown after the story ran.

“That’s a generous offer,” Cline said. “It’s a wonder they didn’t line up to get it.”

He said the commissioners should discuss why they are sending a subsidy to the fire company “because if they’re not actually responding to fires, that money will have to be used elsewhere.

“Maybe it’s not needed (at South Hagerstown), and we need to know where best and efficient use of that money should go.”

As to the fire company’s surplus, Cline said the volunteers association might want to help the company identify needs among the other companies.

“Maybe one company needs turnout gear. Maybe some of them need special laundry machines,” he said.

• McKinley said he does “admire the fact that” Coffelt is being open about his company’s wealth and offering to help others.

“Obviously, he has a pretty good level of concern for the community and I appreciate that,” he said.

“I probably didn’t know they had the $600,000 there and should have known,” McKinley said. “We’re going to look into this and take some action.”

• Callaham said the county does need to examine the situation.

“When something is broken in government, you reach out and try to make it better,” she said. “So if there’s something broken, we all need to reach out. We’re all culpable. We all have responsibility to fix it. And we haven’t done it yet.”

Callaham said she is “disappointed” that the fire company’s leaders haven’t taken the initiative to call another company and offer to loan it money.

“We’ve got companies struggling,” she said.

On the other hand, she said, local government is to blame, too.

“My sense is, stuck somewhere is an agreement for the county to give the city some amount of money,” she said, referring to the county’s $24,500 operating subsidy.

“And no one has taken the time to draw out that agreement and look at it and see how you can change this,” Callaham said.

Asked about that, city Fire Chief W. Kyd Dieterich said he doesn’t know of any such agreement.

• Among the commissioners, only board President Terry Baker declined to say whether action should be considered as to the county giving the fire company a subsidy.

Baker said he was not familiar enough with the situation to comment.

“Without talking to the individual company, the president, I have no answer,” Baker said.

Told that South Hagerstown’s financial report to the county shows the fire company has more than $600,000 in cash and investments, Baker said, “I don’t know whether they do or not.”

• As to why the volunteers association still is giving public gaming money to the fire company, association President Dale Hill said such a matter only can be decided by his organization’s member companies.

Hill, who took office in January, said a majority of the 27 member companies voted several years ago to divide their chunk of the county’s gaming fund equally among them all.

“So the only way that could be reconsidered is if that would be brought up by any of the member companies,” Hill said of the share given South Hagerstown. “The association’s executive committee cannot make decisions on its own to change the path of the association.”

“If there’s going to be a decision, it’s got to come from a majority” of the member companies, he said.

But any change in the basic operating subsidy that the county government gives South Hagerstown or any other company is a decision solely for the commissioners, Hill said.

“Whatever they want to do on that. They can review the policy as to how they distribute it,” he said.

“I know that some of the companies don’t have the basic expenses of the others. (But) there’s still going to be some expenses of the operation of the station,” Hill said.


A way to help

Dieterich said he’d thought of talking to Coffelt after reading about South Hagerstown’s offer, but the chief said he hasn’t done so yet.

Dieterich said he read about the company’s willingness to perhaps pay for a new firetruck, but the chief said the 2003 model stationed at South Hagerstown now isn’t due to be replaced for several years.

However, Dieterich said, there is a cause he wishes South Hagerstown would consider.

It is that Antietam, another of the city’s volunteer fire companies, undertook a long-term financial burden nearly a year ago so it could move from its old station downtown into a larger facility in the city’s North End, Dieterich said.

To help Antietam, the city government bought a former RV dealership site off Potomac Avenue for $600,000. And the city has agreed to reimburse the fire company for up to $200,000 in expenses as it renovates the building.

In return, Antietam is leasing the site for about $2,529 a month for 30 years, at the end of which the city could give the site to the fire company. By then, Antietam would have paid the city about $910,663.

Helping Antietam pay that debt would “be a great way to use some of that (South Hagerstown) funding, if they’re not going to need it,” Dieterich said.

“That would be money well-spent and the Hagerstown fire department would still benefit and they’d be helping out one of their fellow volunteer fire organizations. It’d be win-win.”

In a separate interview, Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, brought up the idea, too. Donoghue tried unsuccessfully last year to win legislative backing for money to help the Antietam company buy the former RV site.

“I hope that he (Coffelt) would also think about helping Antietam with the acquisition of the building,” Donoghue said.

Coffelt, when told by the newspaper on March 29 about the idea of helping Antietam, said it’s worth discussing.

“We could talk it over,” Coffelt said, but added he would be cautious in giving the money to any company. He said he’s mindful of his company’s history and how careful they’ve been in spending money over the years.

Some companies have “been around far longer than us, so the question is, if they’ve been around far longer than we have, the question is, what happened?” Coffelt asked.

So if Antietam “would come and talk, it’s not going to be a big handout, but we could talk,” Coffelt said. Any assistance might be as a loan, but “we would want to help out — if needed. That’s the way I would put it.”

Told that by the newspaper, Antietam President Ron Horn said he would follow through.

“Yes, yes, I am going to call him,” Horn said of Coffelt. “Yep, definitely.”

Horn said he would have called Coffelt after reading last December’s story, but he hadn’t believed any company would actually offer such help.

“I really didn’t know they were serious about that,” he said.

Horn said Antietam has had to cut “about $100,000 worth of stuff” out of its plans to renovate the former RV building to make its budget affordable.

For instance, he said, the company had hoped to replace large windows in front of the building with smaller ones to “make it look like a fire station, but we had to cut that” expense. Even with such cuts and the $170,000 Antietam had saved for the project, the budget is tight, he said.

With more volunteer firefighters than any other city company, Antietam had “drastically outgrown” its current station downtown, Horn said.

“We have hardly any living quarters for the volunteers” there, he said.

Many of the volunteers have done double duty, working on renovations inside the former RV building, he said. A contractor has been hired and is expected to complete the work by early summer, he said.

Horn, who said he’s known Coffelt since both were boys, said he knows that over the years, the leaders at South Hagerstown have been “real frugal with their money. And we are, too.”

By being careful with its spending, he said, Antietam has been able to help the city government pay for the firetruck at its station, “plus pay $125,000 to $135,000, I think” for another fire vehicle at Antietam” over the years.

Horn said it heartens him to know that South Hagerstown is willing to consider helping another company financially.

“It’s a hard thing to believe that somebody would do that,” Horn said. “If we had a lot of money, too, and a company needed help that way, I would certainly hope my company would do the same thing. And I think our people would.”

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