'We want full transparency'
Washington County commissioners vow to examine fire and rescue finances, increase accountability
Former Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association President Glenn Fishack. (File photo / April 14, 2012)
A majority of the commissioners told The Herald-Mail recently that the changes should include examination of each company’s financial needs and perhaps abandon the longtime practice of handing out the same basic subsidies to all of them.
Most of the commissioners also said that before giving one Hagerstown fire company additional funds, the county will question it about tens of thousands of dollars in expenses it refused to explain to the newspaper last year during an investigation of accountability in the fire and rescue system.
“We want full transparency ,and we’re going to withhold our funding until we get it,” Commissioners Vice President John F. Barr said.
Commissioner William McKinley agreed. “If we don’t, then this whole issue of accountability is diminished. So, surely, I believe there will be questions asked.”
The commissioners, embracing this year’s spirit of cooperation from the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said the public can trust that there is a new partnership dedicated to full accountability.
“I think we’re all put on notice, from your newspaper articles, to the new legislation, to comments from companies,” Commissioner Jeffrey Cline said. “I think you’re looking at a group of people who are going to make good effort to keep all this transparency.”
Some of the commissioners said they share in the blame for not having in place a good review process for fire and rescue finances. They said they believe the accountability problems are more the result of such county failings than of any company’s actions.
“I just believe there was no direction. People doing things best they could,” Cline said.
The push for accountability comes in the wake of a series of Herald-Mail stories based on the newspaper’s yearlong investigation. The paper examined thousands of pages of local and federal financial records, and interviewed dozens of officials.
Key findings included:
The volunteers’ association has been keeping a large chunk of the millions in public gaming money that lawmakers said they originally intended to go to the volunteer companies.
The 1995 law that set up the county’s public gaming fund didn’t spell out what the association should do with the money and didn’t set up any governmental supervision or public accountability.
As a result, the association had been dividing 80 percent of the money among the local companies without telling local government who was getting what. While keeping the rest to pay for a range of services benefitting the companies, the association had built up more than $500,000 in cash and investments.
The county government, which requires each of the 27 volunteer fire and rescue companies to file a financial report annually, was barely looking at the reports before releasing millions of dollars in support payments to the companies.
One local fire company knowingly filed incorrect financial figures, without the county questioning or delaying funding. Meanwhile, other companies had to go for months without county funding because they waited to file accurate reports.
The county government and the volunteer association have been giving two fire companies more than $50,000 a year each in aid — even though one of the companies hasn’t sent any of its own volunteers to a fire in more than two years and the other, as of this month, in five years. One of those companies has more than $600,000 in cash and investments.
One of the county’s busiest volunteer companies filed a report to the Internal Revenue Service, saying the company suspected someone was embezzling money.
One fire company had been writing checks to a business that provided workers to sell tip jars in the volunteer company’s gaming operation, a revelation that led to a police investigation over the winter.