“We have to really watch our cash flow because we don’t have much,” former company President Bob Spence said. “We have to be really careful we have the money in the bank to make that payment. The treasurer will alert the board: Watch out, folks!”
At a time when a few of Washington County’s volunteer fire companies have no debt and earn as much as $25,000 a year on six-figure cash and investment holdings, the Mount Aetna company, which serves a mostly rural area east of Hagerstown, is among the majority that soldier on with not much money to spare.
Last year, to fund its $183,297 budgeted expenses — a third of which were loan payments — the Mount Aetna company had to withdraw about $50,000 from its bank accounts, according to the financial report it gave the county government.
By year’s end, its long-term debt had been reduced to $376,777.
And from its bank accounts — down to $28,134 by year’s end — it had earned $85.09 in interest, the financial report showed. The accounts earned $54.64 in interest the previous year.
The officers of Mount Aetna’s fire engine company aren’t complaining about their situation compared to that of the companies in better financial condition.
“While we certainly struggle with finances, we certainly don’t consider ourselves have-nots,” said Spence, whose two-year term ended Dec. 31. “We’ve been able to provide services, to acquire top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art apparatus and maintain it. And so, at the end of the day, we consider ourselves fulfilling our duty.
“We don’t sit around at the fire hall saying, ‘Gee, I wish we had $400,000 sitting in the bank and we could have a banquet.’ We talk about getting the engine clean and serving our community.”
The fire company, which was formed in 1969 and has a four-bay station off Crystal Falls Drive between Smithsburg and Boonsboro, has about 30 to 35 active members.
About 20 to 25 of them — largely from just a few families — run on most of the emergency calls during the year, Spence said. The company spent nearly $21,000 last year to pay drivers to cover weekday daytime hours, when few volunteers are available.
Mount Aetna is one of the county’s smallest operations.
During calendar year 2011, according to the county Division of Emergency Services, Potomac Valley Volunteer Fire Co. — in the southern part of the county — ran on 318 calls, Mount Aetna ran on 322 calls and Sharpsburg Volunteer Fire Co. went out on 326.
By comparison, DES records show, the busiest fire company was Funkstown Volunteer Fire Co., which ran on 1,408 calls.
At Mount Aetna, “we average a little less than a call a day,” Spence said. Nearly a decade ago, there was one day when Mount Aetna had seven fire calls, “but I’ve been there (when) we haven’t run a call in a week and a half,” he said.
Figuring the funding
Last year, the company had a total of $132,899 in revenue, most of that public funding.
Like each of the county’s 13 other volunteer fire companies outside Hagerstown, Mount Aetna received a $48,000 general subsidy from Washington County government. And the county reimbursed each company for certain utility bills — $10,280 for Mount Aetna last year, records show.
In addition, Mount Aetna received $28,886 as its share of money the county Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association distributes from tip jar gaming profits that businesses must, by law, deposit in a county fund. The fire company also got a Maryland grant of $8,927.