Dousing suspicion on firefighting funds Volunteer companies need to disclose full audit of books. JTC

January 26, 1998

PUBLIC MONEY. PUBLIC TRUST. Public solicitation. There should be no question that public accountability is required under these conditions. Not just a "good faith" declaration of probity, but a certified audit of the books.

So it is dismaying to see the resistance of some Carroll County volunteer fire companies to public disclosure of their financial statements. Especially when the county government is paying nearly $100,000 to conduct that audit.

A legal technicality is raised as an excuse: Fire companies are privately chartered organizations. Yet they get 85 percent of their funds from the county treasury. Their frequent fund-raisers are supported by businesses and residents in appreciation of the public service.

Although they are individual, local volunteer corps, the companies are tightly coordinated for fire and medical emergencies, operating as a countywide public service.

The audit may show some companies with a lot of money in the bank. Fire officers fear the public then will reduce their donations. But most of those assets are earmarked to buy expensive (and necessary) modern equipment to effectively serve a growing county. That plan and its costs need to be made public, to persuade the community of continued support.

There's no direct suspicion that volunteer companies are misusing funds, although division exists within the fire companies' umbrella group about distribution of money. Companies also differ on charging for ambulance runs. No one denies the inestimable contributions made by these dedicated, unpaid emergency-services volunteers. These firefighting neighbors make a vital difference in the county.

The 14 volunteer fire departments are quasi-governmental organizations. They can spend for things that a county agency could not justify. The public should understand that distinction. It should also understand the need for donations to bolster the capabilities of the volunteer service.

But the public is entitled to an accounting of the financial records when it foots the bill. Indeed, full audit disclosure might broaden taxpayer support for the volunteer fire and ambulance system. There's little reason for this fire of public controversy; the volunteers should quickly put it out.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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