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The Baltimore Sun

Most Harford fire companies say they have 'no problems' with county's demands

Only one of Harford County's 12 volunteer fire and ambulance organizations has yet to sign a memorandum of agreement with Harford County government that requires each company to submit detailed financial information before it gets future county funding.

As a group, the fire companies initially balked at the idea of signing the agreement, which many saw as an "ultimatum," and stood strong as part of the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association.

In recent weeks, however, all the fire and ambulance companies except Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company have indicated they would sign the agreement, under which each company would be required to provide an audit, budget, evidence of bonding or insurance and proof of adequate accounting systems.

Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association spokesman Dave Williams said Monday he believes everyone is intending to sign.

"It's just a matter of everyone getting their act together," he said.

But as of late Wednesday, Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company was still refusing to sign, Bob Thomas, the spokesman for Harford County Executive David Craig, said.

If Bel Air does not sign, he said, the company risks losing $227,000 in the upcoming quarter, and as much as $900,000 for the year.

It's unclear why Bel Air won't sign. BAVFC President Tony Coliano declined to comment about the county MOA earlier this month, explaining the fire and ambulance association represents his company. He also declined to comment when contacted again Thursday afternoon.

Financial picture

Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company is by far the wealthiest of the volunteer fire and ambulance organizations in Harford County.

In 2010, the Bel Air company's assets were $16.3 million, and its income as $9.2 million, according to the federal government Form 990, found at http://www.faqs.org/tax-exempt/MD/Bel-Air-Volunteer-Fire-Company-Inc.html.

The company also paid more than $50,000 to 3.1 percent of its employees in 2006, according to the tax report.

Assets of some of the larger fire companies, such as Abingdon, Fallston and Joppa-Magnolia, are $9.4 million, $3.5 million and $5.8 million, respectively, according to the form, while smaller organizations, like Norrisville and Darlington, have assets of $2.9 million and $6.7 million, respectively.

None of those companies came close to Bel Air's $9.2 million in income in 2010, with Abingdon bringing in $1.9 million; Fallston, $1.01 million; Joppa-Magnolia, $1.7 million; Norrisville, $685,000; and Darlington, $770,000, according to each company's Form 990.

That information and more will be part of the financial and other information submitted to the county. Itemized budgets from each must be sent to the county in the next two weeks, Thomas, the county executive's spokesman, said.

"That will be the next phase of the MOA," he said. "We are very pleased with the progress that we have made. We know some of the fire groups have reservations, but we are working with them to make them understand our process and the background for the MOA moving forward."

'No problems'

Representatives of several fire companies who had signed said they had no problems with the agreement. Tige Sheehan, president of the Norrisville company, said the company was just waiting to see what the association would do before signing.

"We are kind of one of the smaller companies," Sheehan said. "We never had a problem with the MOA. We were holding off signing it because we wanted to make sure the association was OK signing it."

Sheehan also said he had no problems with the terms of the memorandum.

"It really is inconsequential to us," he said. "It really was just timing for us. We wanted [there] to be a little bit of solidarity."

Don Lassack, vice president of Jarrettsville VFC, said the company signed last week.

"We looked at this and we seemed to have no problems," Lassack said.

Williams, the fire and ambulance association spokesman who is also with the Fallston company, said the company signed Oct. 17.

"There was never really an intent not to sign," he said about Fallston VFC. "We had some questions about some things in the contract."

He said Fallston had full bonding and had already met all the requirements of the memorandum.

"There were no requirements in the MOA that was anything Fallston was not already doing," he said.

Disclosure requirements

The memorandum requires companies to disclose their budgets and prove they have bonding or insurance for their members.

The Aberdeen Fire Department's board of directors also took out a quarter page advertisement in The Aegis Oct. 14, defending its position.

"We wanted the public to know our stance on it," President Russell Piper said, explaining the company signed the memorandum a long time ago.

Aberdeen Fire Department reported assets of $9.1 million for 2010, as well as an income of $1.8 million for the year.

The advertisement says, "We pride ourselves on our financial due diligence, and express our enduring commitment to providing the best and most cost-effective services to the community."

It responds to four demands the county is making in the agreement, explaining the Aberdeen company has provided its financial statements to the county for more than 25 years, has maintained a strict budget, has insured its corporate officers and has continually provided adequate accounting systems and practices, the advertisement states.

"The Aberdeen Fire Department, Inc., has never…before been requested to submit an itemized budget to Harford County, although we have maintained a strict budget of our own for many years," the advertisement added. "The department does not have an issue with this request, except for its suddenly mandatory requirement."

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