Fire & Rescue Association aims to regain public trust
Group to begin opening up process this week, meeting with commissioners
Dale Hill, the new president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, talks to a small crowd Thursday night at a meeting with the Citizens for the Protection of Washington County. (By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer)
This week, for the first time in at least four years, the association is to present its operating budget for the coming fiscal year in public session to the Washington County Commissioners.
And, it will answer all questions, association President Dale Hill said Friday night.
In addition, the association has told its 27 member companies they soon will have to report how they spend each year’s allocation of public gaming money, said Hill, who became president in January.
He said the full public disclosure of how much money each company earns from its own tip jar and, in some cases, bingo operations “may be something we can work on in the future.”
Hill said a majority of the companies have voted to divvy up about $263,000 of the association’s financial holdings.
Members of the state delegation have criticized the association for having that much money on hand, instead of distributing it to the volunteer companies. Hill said the $263,000 was being saved to help fund an emergency services training center, but members now believe the county is going to pay for that.
“It’s a different administration and a different process,” Hill said of his election and that of other top officers, and of the changes being made.
In recent talks with some of the commissioners and the county’s emergency services director, Hill said, “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.”
Accountability is more important than ever because the local fire companies need more public funding, he said. “Because of the increased costs, it’s becoming increasingly harder for the volunteer organizations to continue functioning,” he said.
Hill’s pledge of openness is in contrast to that of the association’s previous president who said he gave the county commissioners the financial information they wanted — a claim the county administrator has disputed. In addition, the previous president refused to divulge information to the county gaming director and urged his members not to provide any either.
Such a limitation on information-giving hasn’t always been the case.
Former president Glenn Fuscsick, who was president in 2006 and 2007, said Saturday he’d always heard that former administrations had given copies of their budgets to the county government. He said he doesn’t know whether they presented it in person.
Fuscsick said he personally made accountability a priority.
“I was about accountability with the commissioners because I thought that was the only way we could justify asking for more money — by being good stewards and being 100 percent accountable for the money we received,” Fuscsick said.
Told of Hill’s commitment to make changes, including requiring the companies to say how they’ve spent the public gaming money, Fuscsick said, “That’s great news.”
This week’s changes come in the wake of a series of stories examining fire and rescue funding that The Herald-Mail published late last year..
The newspaper’s major findings in a yearlong investigation included discovery that over the years the association has kept 20 percent of the millions of dollars of public gaming money that state lawmakers said they intended to go to the volunteer companies. The money is a portion of the profits local businesses and private clubs reap from the sale of tip jars — a form of paper gambling.
Much of the association’s 20 percent cut has been used for programs that benefit the companies, but by the summer of 2010, the association had $628,842 in cash and investments, according to a report it filed with the Internal Revenue Service.