Details to be ironed out for fire funding fix
Del. Andrew A. Serafini, the chairman of the Washington County legislative delegation, left, leads Thursday night's meeting with the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, Washington County Commissioners, and the Washington County delegation held at the Smithsburg Fire Hall. (By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer)
"I think the important thing will be follow-up, and we'll have to follow up with principally the county officials because they're the ones who are going to know how this will work best," D. Bruce Poole, an attorney for the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said Friday.
At the meeting, held Thursday night between state, county and association officials at the Smithsburg fire hall, there was general agreement that accountability measures are needed. However, details about budget approval, money held in reserves by the association, enforcement responsibility and county takeover of association programs are still to be discussed and decided.
Correcting the law
At issue is wording in the state law governing the distribution of gaming proceeds in Washington County.
The law says half of the amount in each year's gaming fund — a portion of tip-jar proceeds turned over by taverns, restaurants and private clubs in the county — is to go to the fire and rescue association and half to nonprofit organizations.
While the law says the distribution to nonprofit organizations is "subject to any restrictions that the County Commissioners adopt by regulation," no such language is included for the fire and rescue half of the fund.
The omission gives the county no authority to address concerns that the association has been keeping 20 percent of the fire and rescue association share of the gaming fund for its own administrative and programming expenses, leaving less for volunteer companies.
Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, suggested Thursday that the delegation seek a change to the law applying the same "subject to any restrictions..." wording to the distribution to the association.
The commissioners and the association could then work out details of those restrictions at the local level, delegation members said.
"There is no reason why we would have any challenges or issues in Annapolis," Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said of Donoghue's suggested change. "This should be seen as no more than a corrective, technical change."
Delegation members agree that adding that language to the law is necessary for any agreement between the association and the county to be enforceable, Serafini said at the meeting Thursday.
Poole acknowledged a legislative change might be part of the solution.
"In light of everything that you all said tonight, it may be that you end up having some type of very stripped-down, clarifying legislation," Poole said at Thursday's meeting.
He said Friday that the association's initial reaction was that the proposed wording was "very workable."
Serafini said the next step for the delegation would be to draft the legislation, using Donoghue's suggestion as a starting point.
Meanwhile, association and county officials will have to work out details of any restrictions the county will put in place.
Thursday night, Poole passed out a draft agreement he said he wrote after consulting with county staff.