'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)
From ‘whoa!’ to progress
As the newspaper’s initial findings became public last fall, some members of the county’s legislative delegation expressed displeasure.
“Whoa!” Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, told the newspaper earlier that year, when he was asked about the association having as much as $628,842 in cash and investments by mid-2010.
Association President Glenn Fishack had told the paper that parts of the “little nest egg” were being saved for such uses as a new emergency services training center and, if anyone ever sued them, for an attorney.
“That wasn’t the purpose of this,” Donoghue said. “The purpose of this was to build for charity, and for fire and rescue (companies), not for somebody to build fund balances in case something’s going to happen. You don’t need a bankroll like that.”
The newspaper’s findings, Donoghue later said, led to the delegation joining the county commissioners on Sept. 20 in a somewhat confrontational meeting with Fishack, who had been president of the association since 2008. The lawmakers soon declared plans to change the 1995 law to give the county control over how the gaming fund is used.
Half of the fund, which contains a portion of the tip-jar gaming profits earned by businesses and private clubs, is given to charities and half goes to the association. Tip jars contain small cards bearing numbers, some of which win cash.
Fishack fought giving control to the commissioners but softened his position after the delegation warned him that any display of divisiveness in the Maryland legislature risked the loss of the gaming money to the cash-strapped state.
Since January, when the legislature convened and the new gaming bill was filed, the association actively supported it. Fishack, whose term ended in December, and newly elected President Dale Hill, who took office in January, testified in its favor.
The General Assembly has approved the bill. If Gov. Martin O’Malley signs it, the measure would take effect Oct. 1.
It empowers the county commissioners to require the association to submit financial reports, including its annual budget and information that “shows how money has been spent.”
The bill also gives the commissioners the right to approve or reject the association’s budget. The commissioners can withhold the money until they approve the budget.
In the meantime, the association’s new leadership and its members have begun making changes.
Early this year, a majority of the members voted to withdraw about $263,000 of the association’s financial holdings and divide the money among their companies, Hill said. The $263,000 was being saved to build a training center, but members now believe the county will pay for that, Hill said.
The withdrawal, together with the association’s increased spending on physical exams for its volunteers, should leave “very little” in the cash and investment accounts when the current budget year ends this summer, he said.
Furthermore, the association has told the companies they soon will have to report how they spend each year’s allocation of the public gaming money — a show of accountability Hill pledged to the delegation.
“It’s a different administration and a different process,” Hill said.
In talks with some of the commissioners and the county’s emergency services director, “I’ve said I want to make sure we have an open, cooperative relationship ... and not have any stigma that the association is a group on its own,” Hill said.
He said accountability is more important than ever because the local fire companies need more public funding. The county has been giving the EMS companies a special subsidy since 2010, but there’s been no such relief yet for the fire companies, which are finding it “increasingly harder ... to continue functioning,” he said.