Firehouse raises alarm

Troubles at Riviera Beach Volunteer Co. spark debate on oversight

April 13, 2007|By Bradley Olson and Phillip McGowan | Bradley Olson and Phillip McGowan,sun reporters

In the wake of an investigation into illegal activity at the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company that has already led to theft charges against a former treasurer, County Council members and fire officials said they see no need now to increase oversight of the volunteer companies.

Riviera Beach's troubles are isolated, officials said, and predicted legal challenges in trying to regulate what are essentially private businesses.

Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican who represents the Riviera Beach community, said attempting to install checks on the volunteers "is a tough situation ... as far as the financial end."

"The oversight has in the past hit some roadblocks," he said.

According to rules set out in the county's charter, the Fire Department maintains operational control of the volunteer stations, meaning that it tells the firetrucks and ambulances where to go and command rescue efforts. But it can't open the books of any company or intervene with its internal politics.

David Lewis, president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association, did not return calls for comment.

The county has 1,400 firefighters, including 850 career personnel and 550 volunteers working at 30 fire stations. Of those, the county runs 11 stations and volunteers run 19, although the county owns some equipment and buildings.

In light of the charges filed March 31 against Kelly McColl, the former Riviera Beach treasurer, County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat, expressed concern that the firehouse's loss of $50,000 "could cause interruption of life-depending critical services."

Benoit added that the allegations "should merit substantially more oversight at volunteer fire stations. You leave it to the board of directors to do the oversight. At the same token when that is not working," he said, more outside supervision may be needed.

"It ought to give pause for every board of directors of every volunteer fire department to look at their expenses," Benoit said.

McColl, 40, is accused of writing dozens of checks from the Pasadena firehouse's accounts to pay for his mortgages, credit card bills and car insurance. Police have yet to arrest him, because his last known address was in South Carolina, but they continue "an active investigation" into the company's finances.

Former Chief Kenneth B. Hyde Sr., who has not been criminally charged, was accused by his fellow firefighters of using the firehouse's credit card to cover his personal expenses, although he said he repaid the money.

The county is withholding reimbursements for equipment and building maintenance because the Riviera Beach company's state charter was revoked in December, said Battalion Chief Michael Cox, a department spokesman. The county also demoted Hyde and several others whose behavior at Riviera Beach was deemed inappropriate.

Another punitive option open to the county is to refuse to allow volunteer firefighters and paramedics from responding to calls.

As a practical matter, the community can turn against a wayward fire station, leading to the drying up of vital donations.

"If you are going to give to a group, you would want that group to spend money in a proper manner," Dillon

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