Volunteer firefighter audit is sought

Officials question records on rentals for Havre de Grace hall

May 24, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

In picturesque Havre de Grace, the local volunteer fire company has long been a thread that runs through the fabric of life in the town along the banks of the Susquehanna River.

Now that thread is fraying, with members of the nearly century-old Susquehanna Hose Company feuding with city officials over the use of the city-owned fire hall.

While the hose company occupies the fire station rent-free, it is allowed to make money by renting a second-floor hall to groups for social events, fund-raising dinners and other activities.

But city officials say they don't know where the rent money is going. Noting checks written to individual fire company members, they're asking for an independent audit -- and the keys to the fire hall.

"We've asked for an audit, and we've asked for it strongly," said city attorney Paul Ishak.

The fire company is refusing, pointing to a 1911 agreement giving the department unrestricted use of the hall in exchange for firefighting services. While they concede problems with their bookkeeping, the volunteers insist they've done nothing wrong.

"It may not be good business practice to make out a check to `John Q. Chairman' instead of `the Susquehanna Hose Company,' but that happens all the time," said Roger Powell, the lawyer for the fire department.

"This isn't Manhattan, this is Havre de Grace," he said.

The dispute, however, has done little to dampen community support for the volunteer fire company.

"We have a pretty strong sense of community here in this town," said Garrett Pensell, a 28-year-old third generation Havre de Grace resident, whose family runs Tidewater Marina.

"The volunteers are here to help us, and we appreciate the hard work they do," Pensell said.

The two-story firehouse at Union and Pennington avenues is one of four operated by Susquehanna Hose Company.

Harford County has no paid firefighters, but Havre de Grace allocated $92,300 to the hose company in this year's budget for operations. Harford County allocated $240,000 this year, and the annual audit done for the county showed no improprieties, officials said.

The dispute over the rental fees arose after a routine internal hose company report was leaked to the city. That report highlighted sloppy accounting.

Powell said that the checks were made out to single member of the company in charge of rentals, but that all the money had been accounted for.

"I have copies of the bank deposits," Powell said. "The issue here is not missing money, it is bad accounting practices."

Members of the fire company have stopped talking to the city and are referring all calls to their lawyer, Powell.

Havre de Grace Mayor Philip J. Barker said he had hoped to settle the issue amicably with the fire department. "I have full faith and respect for the job they do," Barker said. "I'm hoping we can resolve this issue as quickly as possible."

Barker says the company has to streamline its accounting practices because it is a recipient of public money.

"All we are seeking are assurances that everything is being done in a proper manner," the mayor said.

Pub Date: 5/24/99

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