Washington County’s state legislative delegation got closer Wednesday to agreeing on a final bill proposing new oversight over the financial workings of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.
At a delegation meeting in Annapolis, lawmakers answered questions raised by Dale Hill, the association’s president.
Hill’s main concern was whether the wording of the proposed bill would give county government officials budgetary oversight power over not just the association, but also its member fire and rescue companies.
The lawmakers said that provision of the bill only applies to the association, but agreed to make the bill’s wording clearer.
Hill told the delegation that he agreed that the association should submit a budget to the county for review, but he didn’t expect individual companies to have to do the same.
After a series of Herald-Mail stories raised questions about how the association uses and distributes local tip-jar money, members of the county legislative delegation agreed that the tip-jar law needed to be tightened.
Under the county’s tip-jar law, half of the gaming proceeds goes to the fire and rescue association, which distributes much of it to member agencies. The other half is divided among local nonprofit groups through a detailed application process.
A draft bill discussed last week calls for the association’s half to be monitored in a similar fashion as that of nonprofit organizations.
Hill pointed to a section of the draft bill that states that the Washington County Board of Commissioners may adopt regulations requiring that “agencies receiving the funds shall submit financial reports including proposed budgets; and the distribution of the funds is subject to the approval of the county commissioners.”
Even though the word “agencies” was used, lawmakers assured Hill that the section is intended to only apply to the association.
County Administrator Gregory B. Murray, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said the county already gets financial information from fire and rescue companies when the county distributes other money to them. But that is separate from what is proposed in the gaming bill, he said.
The delegation again put off a vote on whether to file the bill, giving the state Department of Legislative Services more time to make the wording precise.
Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said the language in the bill needs to be simple — “like cotton candy” — or outside lawmakers might get the idea that Washington County’s tip-jar system is dysfunctional.
Other county officials, including James B. Hovis, the director of the county Office of Community Grant Management, and commissioners Jeff Cline and Ruth Anne Callaham, attended the meeting with Murray.
A Jan. 24 letter from Terry Baker, the president of the county commissioners, said the board “fully supports the proposed bill as currently drafted concerning the County’s distribution of gaming proceeds to the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.”
The delegation also reviewed concerns that D. Bruce Poole, an attorney representing the association, raised in a letter to Del. Andrew A. Serafini, the delegation chairman.
One was whether the county commissioners, under the bill, would have the authority to impose rules not connected to the association’s finances.
“There is concern that the proposed language could be used for much more and expansive restrictions and requirements,” Poole wrote.
Poole also wrote that the association “wants to deal directly with local officials, and not persons within the bureaucratic system.”
Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, suggested establishing a limit to the amount of money the association is allowed to accumulate.