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Public money should come with call for accountability

March 06, 2013

It will be up to the judicial system to decide whether Jeffrey C. Ringer, the well-paid administrator of Halfway Volunteer Fire Co., misused more than $10,000 in department funds or if — as Ringer claims — the amount in question involves legitimate business expenses.

But no court is needed to know that, once again, there is solid evidence proving that the Washington County Commissioners and state delegation need to find a way to bring transparency and accountability to the emergency services system.

Police allege Ringer used company funds to pay off bar and restaurant tabs, and for a family member’s tuition at Hagerstown Community College.

The opacity of the volunteer system is demonstrated by the fact that it literally took years for this investigation to play out. During that time, then-chief Ringer was suspended (with pay) by the department for two months over what Halfway officials called a “minor infraction” that was “totally not” related to theft.

After reinstatement, Ringer has continued to serve and continued to draw a salary that most nonvolunteer employees in Washington County could only dream of.

If the delegation and commissioners had no questions before, they certainly should now. Does a department that can afford to pay an administrator $87,000 really need county tax dollars, especially when smaller departments are struggling? What should the qualifications for an administrator of a multimillion-dollar organization be? And most importantly, where are the checks and balances on the people who handle the money, much of it in the form of cash?

These are public questions, because fire companies accept public money, and lots of it.

Yet we do not get public answers because state law treats volunteer fire companies as private companies, answerable to no one except their inner hierarchy — which might be packed with friends and relatives ill disposed to pointing fingers.

Sadly, fire companies across the state are inextricably tied to gambling, and with so much money at stake, it would take an epic legislative fight to change the status quo on a statewide basis.

Local lawmakers and commissioners need to attach more strings to public money to increase accountability and transparency.

This is not just for the benefit of taxpayers. More accountability will ultimately be for the benefit of the departments themselves, because we suspect that with each passing scandal, local residents might become less inclined to contribute.

What resident of the Halfway area will want to give money to an organization that sees its way clear to paying an administrator $87,000, especially when that administrator is the subject of a state police theft investigation?

Halfway’s legendary and lucrative bingo operation has saved taxpayers a small fortune. And if that were its only funding source, it would be free to hire who it wanted, at what salary it wanted and to allow its employees to eat and drink wherever they wanted on the company dime, if it so chooses.

But lots of public money goes into these companies. And by accepting donations in exchange for fire protection, the volunteer system operates as a public trust.

Unfortunately, we have seen these trusts. Fire protection is not optional, and it is a government duty to see that it is provided as efficiently and professionally as possible. So with the unpleasant events of last week, once again, the ball is in the court of our local elected representatives.

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