CHARLES TOWN – A proposal to require extensive audits in order for local volunteer fire departments to receive county funding drew strong opposition from local firefighters at last week’s County Commission meeting.
The objection, explained Ronald Fletcher, president of the Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association, stems from the fact that the commission proposed requiring audits of all the fire companies’ books rather than examining only the funds that the county disperses.
For the larger fire companies like Citizens, Independent, and Shepherdstown, said Fletcher, who is also the president of Citizens Fire Company, county funding typically makes up only 10 to 15 percent of their annual funding, with fundraising efforts providing most of the dollars and the state kicking in a little more. Nonetheless, he said, county funding is vital for smaller fire companies because they have fewer fundraising capabilities.
“We want to work with the County Commission, along with the JCESA to come to a resolution of this,” Fletcher said. “Our concern is getting the money we deserve, having the stations be able to operate on the funds that we receive, and doing what we nee to be able to do.”
The fire companies receive two annual disbursements of cash from the county. The first, at around $25,000, is set by the companies’ contract with the county to provide fire services. He noted that this contract expired in June and negotiations for a new contract are currently ongoing. The second payment is made as a donation to the tune of $36,000 per company.
It is this second payment that the county is considering making dependent on audits.
Fletcher points out that there are already some supervision measures in place which ensure that this money is spent properly.
“In the past we have provided our 990s (and) something from each station saying an internal audit was done and everything checked out,” Fletcher said.
However, with financial malfeasance scandals that emerged at two fire companies in recent years, county officials say they feel compelled to extend those oversight provisions.
“With the problems we’ve had with a couple stations in the past … the Commission felt that there is a need for an audit on all of our funds – everything – which they are not entitled to,” Fletcher said, pointing out that such an audit would include money raised from fundraising drives, the status of investment accounts maintained by the companies.
Fletcher said the fire companies would prefer to set aside the funds they receive from the county in a separate account in order to maintain full transparency for those monies.
“We have to show the state each year how we spent (the money they disbursed),” Fletcher said. “We are more than open to doing that for the $61,000 that we receive from the county. I don’t think that is as big of an issue as they perceived it to be. We do want to cooperate. We do want to show you how it’s spent.”
But the companies themselves should be in charge of looking after the money they raise themselves, he said.
Fletcher points out that commissioning an external audit of their books could cost each cash-strapped fire house between 7,000 and 10,000 each.