The 27 volunteer fire and rescue companies in Washington County spent nearly $13 million in 2010, the most recent year for which all are on record.
But a yearlong investigation by The Herald-Mail showed that details of what happened with a lot of that money are elusive.
For starters, the association that represents all of the companies over the years has taken a large chunk of the millions in public gaming money that lawmakers say they originally intended to go to the volunteer companies.
Their 1995 law — because it has no restrictions — gave the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association the right to do whatever it wants with the money — without telling local government.
That is in large part what has happened. The association provides a range of services to benefit the volunteer companies, sets standards for fire and rescue safety, and supervises the distribution of most of the gaming money to the companies themselves.
However, the association doesn't tell the county government what it gives each of the volunteer companies, or how it spends up to half the money it keeps, or why it has more than a half-million dollars in cash and investments.
The county government is not totally blind to what the association has not been reporting.
At the same time, the county requires volunteer companies to file annual financial reports.
However, in the county office that receives those reports and releases county funding based on them, no one routinely examines them.
The newspaper discovered that one of the county's busiest volunteer companies filed a report last year saying it suspected someone was embezzling money in its gaming operations.
The newspaper's investigation found that the lack of enforcement on various reporting levels raises such questions as:
- Why has one local fire company that knowingly has filed incorrect financial figures for years escaped question by the county government — while other companies have had to go for months without county funding because they waited to file accurate reports?
- Why have the county government and the volunteer fire and rescue association been giving another fire company more than $50,000 a year in aid — even though that company's volunteers aren't going out on fire calls and it has a wealth of money on hand?
- Why must a volunteer fire chief worry about a public safety issue — how his rural company is going to afford the $35,000 it will cost to hire fire engine drivers for the daytime hours when volunteers aren't always available?
These are samples of the differing financial situations and inconsistent practices The Herald-Mail found in an investigation that involved examining thousands of pages of financial records and interviewing dozens of officials.
The newspaper also found that several companies are making efforts to open their financial books to public scrutiny.
And many ideas emerged during interviews of people within and outside the ranks for improvements in the area of financial accountability.
Such matters loom large these days in the often-behind-the-scenes struggle to keep the county's fire and rescue service going.
The heart of the system is its volunteers — about 1,050 people — in a confederation of 27 independent volunteer companies, supported by a complex web of revenues, much of it dependent on government and gaming.
The issue is accountability.
Financial reporting requirement
In late summer 2005, the Washington County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved standard operating procedures for what is called the Financial Reporting and Auditing of Volunteer Fire and Rescue Companies.
In that document, the commissioners said they wanted to "establish a policy to monitor the proper and appropriate use of public funds raised by and distributed to Washington County Volunteer Fire, Rescue and Ambulance Companies."
The commissioners at the time were James Kercheval, John Munson, Doris Nipps, Gregory Snook and William Wivell.
The commissioners said in that document that to enable them "to make informed decisions" in budgeting money and "to ensure confidence" among residents donating to the companies, each was being required to file a financial report at least once a year.
"Annual financial reporting plays a major role in fulfilling the fire and emergency service's duty to be accountable to citizens, local elected officials, regulators and creditors," the commissioners said.
Since then, every company has been required to give the county's Division of Emergency Services an annual report intended to cover all the company's revenues, and its expenses, investments and liabilities.
If the report isn't filed to the Division of Emergency Services within three months after a company's budget year ends, all of its county funding is withheld until it does file the report.
That can mean a company must go without tens of thousands of dollars in the meantime.
In all, the county budget called for providing the 27 companies more than $3.7 million during fiscal 2011, which ended June 30. And, during the current 2012 fiscal year, it's budgeted to send them another $3.7 million.
Who's checking the reports?