On page A1 of today's Herald-Mail is the first in a series of stories on funding and financial reporting practices of the 27 fire and rescue companies in Washington County and of the county Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.
It's been a year since reporter Arnold Platou was asked by editors at the paper to look into the companies' funding, including money coming from the Washington County Board of Commissioners and from the county Gaming Office.
The idea was to determine the level of accountability for funding that the county expects the fire and rescue companies and the volunteer fire and rescue association to provide, to gain insight into how the companies comply with accountability requirements, and to learn what oversight there is for that compliance.
Platou knew next to nothing about the fire and rescue companies when he started working on this assignment and had no idea where his scrutiny would take him. None of us realized that the system was so complex, and information so difficult to come by, that a year would pass before we felt we were ready to publish stories that would make sense and be informative.
We might not have asked Platou to undertake this task had there been any indication that anyone at the county level had a handle on the finances of the companies, which collectively receive millions of dollars a year in operating funds and reimbursements from the county and tip-jar money through the gaming office. A portion of that money is proceeds from paper gambling and a portion comes from tax dollars.
In 2010 alone, the 27 companies spent $13 million, but Platou found it can be difficult, even impossible, to pin down details of what happened with a lot of that money.
During the past year, he painstakingly combed through thousands of pages of financial reports and interviewed dozens of people, including more than a few who did not want to talk to him.
He looked at years' worth of 990 forms — required by the IRS for an organization to retain its tax exempt status — for every fire and rescue company in Washington County and for the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.
He checked years' worth of a separate county-required form for each company and the volunteer association.
Along the way, Platou found examples of less-than-stellar reporting and oversight.
And he found that some companies went further than the county requires to report their financial details and some professed a willingness to open their books.
He also found some people have ideas of how the system can be improved to ensure that all companies get a fair shake.
If we have done our job, today's stories and those that follow will provide a blueprint to help readers navigate the complexities of fundraising, funding and reporting that the companies face.
If nothing else, these stories should raise a question of accountability — who is accountable for what, and who is making sure everything is being done properly.
Accountability will — or at least should — become increasingly important as volunteers become harder to find and the county picks up an increasing share of the fire-and-rescue bill for staffing and other needs.
Linda Duffield is city editor of The Herald-Mail. You can email her at email@example.com.