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Public-private partnerships have risks

February 10, 2013

Those enamored with the idea of public-private partnerships, such as the one being discussed for the Washington County Economic Development Commission, might pay close attention to the county’s ultimate public-private partnership: The one it shares with the county’s 27 — now 26 — emergency service departments.

Properly structured, these partnerships can be an efficient arrangement that permits each sector to do what it does best. But the cornerstone has to be accountability and transparency, because without it, the wheels can come off.

As we have just witnessed. And as we have witnessed before, almost more times than can be counted.

In the volunteer fire and rescue system we have now, millions of tax and gambling dollars are shoveled into the departments, with next to no questions asked. Some of these departments are great stewards of public dollars; some are not.

Even after the poor stewards have been identified, there is precious little the county can do to correct the situation, other than to withhold future funds and enforce a sort of double-secret probation.

With that in mind, it is something of a mystery why the county bothered to spend months investigating poor performance at the Fairplay Fire Co., when in the end it was powerless to enact what appeared to be the most effectual recommendation of its specially appointed task force: Get some new blood at the top.

To understand what went wrong at Fairplay requires an understanding of the history of the volunteer system. These companies were once basically social clubs that fought fires on the side. Today, that’s evolved into a system where the word “volunteer” is a misnomer.

Essentially, many departments now have on staff paid firefighters as well as career firefighters, a number of whom work down the road for suburban departments and volunteer their time here.

Those paid and career firefighters, along with the many dedicated volunteers, are likely embarrassed by casual bookkeeping or social-club antics that make the public think less of their departments’ professionalism.

This was Fairplay in a nutshell.

Under current leadership, when the company was dispatched to an emergency, valuable minutes ticked by without any trucks leaving the station.

The obvious solution would have been to install new leadership. But the county says it doesn’t have that authority, so it must sit back impotently and watch as the current leadership at Fairplay sits on millions of dollars worth of property, with no way to put it in the hands of the men and women who actually want to respond to emergencies. Worse, if Fairplay should decide to sell its trucks and equipment, it appears there is nothing under the county’s present structure to prevent it — even if tax money helped purchase these expensive goods.

This is a bed of the (past and present) commissioners’ and delegations’ own making.

Accountability and transparency are roots of the same tree, and in its fire and rescue departments, the county has neither. The most incredible circumstance to come out of Fairplay is this: Eliminating a fire company has actually improved response times, as more efficient companies on the fringes of Fairplay’s turf picked up the slack.

Thinking citizens are bound to start asking some uncomfortable questions. Companies have complained of an increasing dearth of funding and volunteers. Might the problem not be one of too little money and too few volunteers, but one of too many stations for which the volunteers and staff raise money? And what of the terribly expensive redundancies of trucks and buildings and equipment that occur when stations are too close to each other?

As the trucks and equipment in the Fairplay hall gather dust, Fairplay leaders might take heart in knowing that some other brouhaha will come along to make us forget about their situation. Just as Fairplay made us forget about Halfway, which made us forget about Clear Spring, which made us forget about Smithsburg.

Without accountability, financial transparency and central authority, the song will remain the same. And the county and delegation seem to have no interest in rectifying any of the problems that naturally arise when public-private agencies accept tax money.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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