Trust is nice, but not where money is concerned
Tim Rowland (November 30, 2010)
Under the new law, a big chunk of the money previously kept by the clubs was to be directed to the fire and rescue companies. Politically, this did two things: It allowed the County Commissioners to kick any potential fire-tax can on down the road, and more importantly fire and rescue support gave the bill the political ballast it needed to gain critical mass in Annapolis.
It passed after community uproar over a Herald-Mail report revealing that the clubs (and some of their members) were keeping 92 percent of gambling revenues for themselves, when in fact, they should have been giving the bulk of it to charity.
The now-ancient law that originally permitted tip-jar gambling in clubs in the first place was devoid of checks and balances because it basically trusted clubs to do the right thing. When the law was redrawn in 1995, lawmakers trusted the fire and rescue association to do the right thing.
But by now lawmakers ought to understand that if you write a blank check to anyone — private clubs; fire and rescue associations; me — that that check is going to get cashed, and no one is going to want you to know how many zeros come after the 1.
Money does that, even to the best of people.
Now comes news that the fire and rescue association has better than a half-million dollars sprinkled through various accounts and — surprise — it initially didn't think the lawmakers, County Commissioners or taxpayers have any right to know how this money is being handled. Despite the fact that it filed its annual report to the county a year late, its leaders contended the organization — a loose confederation of the county's 27, count 'em 27, fire and rescue companies — was "bending over backwards" to be as forthcoming as possible.
If "bending over backwards" means filing its paperwork a year late and refusing any county entreaty for more information, one might be curious as to what the association's definition of "stonewalling" might be.
Association leaders boil up like a violated volcano when anyone questions their integrity. They think they've "been scrutinized enough on the damn finances."
Oh? Why? The association, remember, has no inherent right to these damn finances. They are the association's finances only by the grace of the Maryland General Assembly, which could just as easily give the community's gambling money directly to the local fire and ambulance departments, or anyone else it pleases.
Administrating this ample revenue stream, in other words, is a privilege, not a right. Abuse the privilege and you're going to be right back there making your money through the sale of blueberry muffins at a neighborhood bake sale.
That is, if the lawmakers do the right thing, which it appears that they will. With wide-eyed innocence, Del. John Donoghue said, "I just can't imagine they can't say, 'Here's our (bank) balance. We're grateful to all the people in the community who go to the clubs. Here's our funding and here's what we're doing with it."
Guys? In detective work, that's what's known as a clue. That means open up your books and be nice about it, or you might find yourself with a half-dozen bank accounts too many.
At a recent meeting, delegation Chairman LeRoy Myers was more ominous. If the state sees a whole pile of our money sitting around gathering dust, it will be more than happy to spend it for us.
In a last-minute Hail Mary, the association is attempting to frame the debate as an attack on volunteers who give selflessly of themselves to protect our citizens' lives and property.
Oh really? So does this mean that the association is sending volunteers monthly financial statements explaining in detail how all this cash is going to be used for their benefit? My guess is that these volunteers are no more in the loop than the lawmakers, the county or anyone else.
A number of them, in fact, are tired of being pawns in this ongoing money fight. Judged by performance, these volunteers are professionals who cringe at the Mickey Mouse state of fire and rescue administration that has ruled the roost from time immemorial. At this point the fire and rescue association at least appears to be in the talking stages of systematic disclosure. It would be to its credit if it closed a loophole that lawmakers left open.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is email@example.com.