Aid to fire companies distributed unequally

June 21, 1992|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Staff writer

Fewer than half of Anne Arundel County's 26 volunteer fire companies received more than three-quarters of nearly $2 million in state aid known as "508 money" between fiscal 1986 and 1991, according to county records.

The companies that received the most money -- Odenton, West Annapolis, Deale and Earleigh Heights -- controlled the committee of volunteer chiefs that decided how the money should be distributed, volunteer leaders say.

"We didn't want to give money to what are essentially career stations," explained Mike Robinson, a former chief at Earleigh Heights who chaired the committee for two years. The larger, more active companies received the most, while companies with fewer members and resources got the least, he said.

In the last two years, county officials have rejected volunteers' recommendations for trucks and chiefs' cars at volunteer stations. Instead, they decided to use the state money to buy face shields for paid and volunteer firefighters and a ladder truck for the Glen Burnie volunteer station.

The volunteers sued two weeks ago to force the county government to give them the money, as it has done in the past.

In the first five years after the state began the program to bolster fire protection, Earleigh Heights received $166,352, Odenton got West Annapolis took in $219,729 and Deale got $202,228.

Riva Volunteer Fire Co., where 18 paid firefighters augment the four or five active volunteers, received $739.

"We applied a couple of times for money to rehab our truck, but we didn't get anything," complained Morris Carr, treasurer at Riva.

"You couldn't get any money unless you were in their clique," groused Terry Pinder, chief of the Cape St. Claire Volunteer Fire Co. "The only reason I got any is I raised such a stink that Mac [Joseph M. Connell, former fire administrator] finally stood up and said, 'Give him the money.' "

Pinder's company received $115,343 in fiscal 1990 to put toward a truck and a chief's car.

Anne Arundel County generally received between $350,000 and $400,000 annually in 508 money. Part of it went to Annapolis for its fire service; the rest was divided by a committee of volunteers who weighed requests from each of the volunteer companies.

The procedure is unique among the metropolitan counties. Baltimore County, for example, allots one-third of its money to the paid firefighters and divides the rest equally among the 33 volunteer companies. In Howard County, the head of the fire department decides where to spend the money, with advice from volunteers.

In the years that the money has been available, Louis D'Camera and Wylie Donaldson, the chief and former chief of the Odenton Volunteer Fire Co., chaired Anne Arundel's committee, as did Robinson. Other members included John Smith of West Annapolis, Art Spencer of Arundel and Leonard King of Deale.

Those companies and five others, the largest volunteer companies that also had members on the committee, took in $1.5 million in 508 money, while the remaining $500,000 went to the smaller companies.

Jessup, for example, got $665, and Arnold received $517. Herald Harbor got $51,000, and Galesville, $53,000.

"We looked first at the company's ability to add to that money," Robinson said. The committee distributes money to companies that could match the grant with money of their own, he explained.

"[For] a lot of volunteer companies, if you take away the county grants, the company doesn't exist," he added.

nTC But five of the nine companies that received more than $100,000 matched that with no-interest loans from the county for as much as $253,000.

"Those other companies could have applied for the loans," Robinson said. "I'm not going to argue with you and say it wasn't political. Certainly, there's been politics in it, but the ultimate goal of the program was to strengthen the volunteer fire service, and that's what we were trying to do."

To give money to stations staffed mostly by career firefighters would have been the same as giving the paid force more equipment when it had other resources to make the purchases, he reasoned. But to give money to the larger volunteer companies would give the smaller companies incentive to recruit more active members and raise more money.

"It was our opportunity to strengthen our organization," he said. "We could show these smaller companies that if they went out and worked and increased their membership and were more active, they would be able to get this money."

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