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Transparency will benefit fire, rescue volunteers

April 29, 2012

Accountability is good protection for those who give money to a worthy cause and for those who accept the money on behalf of the cause. Accountability assures the givers that their contributions are being intelligently spent. Accountability also protects the recipient from accusations of impropriety.

An elementary lesson perhaps, but one that public office holders over the past two or three decades have refused to learn, at least as it applies to the county emergency services network.

We are heartened that a majority of this current Board of County Commissioners appears to be taking some positive steps toward plugging some of the more obvious holes in a system that basically allows tax dollars (not to mention millions of gambling dollars) to vanish from view.

Maybe these dollars are well-spent and maybe they’re not; the point is that accountability and transparency will eliminate doubt.

This doubt has been created by commissioners past, who did not want to risk antagonizing fire and rescue companies (cynics would say the commissioners didn’t want to risk losing a significant voting block; idealists would say the commissioners hated to look a gift horse in the mouth. The truth probably lies somewhere in between).

A yearlong Herald-Mail investigation appears to indicate that most companies are at least trying to do the right thing, even without supervision. But, as they themselves acknowledge, their expertise lies in fighting fires, not in balancing books.

Past commissioners have required financial reports from the companies, but there is no evidence these reports have received much more than a cursory examination, if that. In fact, at contribution time, timely submission of the reports has seemed to interest the county more than the reports’ substance. If a report is on time, the company gets its money — even if the report is inaccurate. By contrast, sticklers for getting it right at the cost of a delay in reporting are effectively punished for doing so.

The commissioners say the reports will now be more heavily scrutinized by financial professionals, which would be a welcome check on the system.

Most of the commissioners also said last month that Western Enterprise Fire Co. must explain how it spent more than $100,000 on what it calls “volunteer relations” — expenses it refused to explain to this newspaper — before they send the company any more public funding.

Couple this with the state delegation’s move to require more accountability out of the county Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, and for the first time in decades we might be looking at real progress.

We caution, however, that we have heard such promises in the past — then when the spotlight is turned off, it’s back to business as usual.

Too many times in the past, improprieties, allegations of improprieties, studies and consultant reports have generated flurries of interest in reforming the system, only to lose momentum when the public’s attention became focused elsewhere.

This is unfair to people who contribute to the fire and rescue companies in good faith, but it is also unfair to our volunteers, most of whom are volunteer in name only. They are professionals, and they deserve for their county and companies to represent them in a financially professional way.

Some elected officials have been slow to learn that accountability helps, not hurts, the volunteers. No one wants his or her integrity to be questioned, and when transparency rules, none of our brave fire and rescue workers should have to suffer that indignity again.

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