Open the books

October 04, 2011

The thing that's odd about Harford County Executive David R. Craig seeking access to the financial records of the volunteer fire companies that serve the county as a condition of getting government funding is that it's taken so long.

It's been decades since the volunteer fire companies that serve Harford County have been obliged to arrange carnivals and other fundraisers largely because a substantial portion of the volunteer fire service's money comes from government and government-enabled sources.

Make no mistake about it. The county becoming a substantial source of funding for the volunteer fire and ambulance source has been a largely successful public policy. Firefighting is and has been a profession that requires a high degree of training. Gone are the days of bucket brigades and community members showing up and helping put out fires. The equipment is expensive. The training is expensive and requires a major time commitment from those who volunteer.

Then there is the matter of the ambulance and emergency medical aspect of the local fire and ambulance service. Begun as little more than an add-on to the fire side, it has become the busiest part of the system, which is part of the reason a paid aspect of ambulance service has come into being in Harford County.

The long and short of it is fundraising through carnivals, bake sales and such probably wouldn't be sufficient, even if volunteers had time to organize it.

Still, the county gets a relative bargain in the fire service, spending roughly $7 million for the operating expenses last year with the expectation of spending a little less this year. In exchange, we get a highly trained, dedicated and very large firefighting service. That the county doesn't have to pay salaries and benefits results in millions of dollars in savings.

An often unmentioned detail of the fire service funding system in place in Harford County, however, has been one of very limited public accountability for the millions in public money the fire companies receive.

As a practical matter, the fire companies are organized as private clubs or corporations. Though they work closely with government agencies, like the 911 dispatch center in Hickory, as well as various police departments, they are accountable to neither police nor the county's Division of Emergency Operations when it comes to how they are managed.

When the fire service receives county money, it is allocated based on requests that involve detailed plans, but there is no mechanism for the county to check and see if those plans are followed, or if the fire companies are properly maintaining their books.

The fire companies for years have been rather reluctant to open their books to anyone, least of all the county government. And in the administrations of the past few county executives, there has been a reluctance to do anything that upsets the fire companies, lest they threaten to close up shop making necessary the establishment of an expensive paid fire service. There also has been a fear in some political circles that members of the volunteer fire service could become a potent voting block should they become upset, though this seems a bit farfetched as the in-house fire company elections can be plenty divisive.

This has been a great failing of the county government. Just because someone provides a valuable service doesn't mean they should be given money without oversight to ensure financial accountability. The sheriff's office provides a valuable service to the county and, though the sheriff is elected to a state office, the agency is obliged to open its books to the county. Same goes for the school system.

In recent years, the imperative that there be a measure of public oversight of firehouse finances has increased substantially because of the establishment of a paid element to the local fire and ambulance service. On the ambulance side, several fire companies have dealt with the pressure to provide emergency responders by paying ambulance responders. It was bad enough that there was no way to check to make sure money was going for hoses, gasoline or trucks, but when people are being paid by an organization that receives public money, the need for public oversight increases substantially.

Any organization that provides a necessary public service and receives public money to do so should be required to open its finances for public scrutiny. The local fire and EMS service is no an exception.

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