Jack Coffelt thought surely he’d be mobbed by excited government and fire leaders.
But in the nearly four months since a front page newspaper story noted that his volunteer fire company has riches to share, Coffelt has received not even one call from fire, rescue or government officials.
“I can’t figure it out,” said Coffelt, president of South Hagerstown Fire Co.
Just as bewildering, he said, is that even though his company has more than $600,000 in cash and investments and is debt-free, it still is receiving more than $50,000 a year in public aid.
This year, that includes $24,500 as a basic operating subsidy from Washington County’s government, and $27,447 as assistance, from the county Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association using money that comes from the county’s gaming fund.
Why is public money being given to a fire company that says it doesn’t need it right now?
A majority of the Washington County Commissioners told The Herald-Mail late last month that they will talk to the fire company about the situation.
“There is no defense if we’re continuing to send them $24,500 when they don’t need it,” Commissioner William McKinley said. “We need to look into that. ... My position is, not only should we, but we will.”
Commissioners John Barr, Ruth Anne Callaham and Jeffrey Cline agreed the situation needs to be addressed.
“These are the kinds of things that we need to be aware of,” Barr said, adding the county has “learned a lot” from The Herald-Mail’s yearlong examination of financial accountability in fire and rescue operations.
Until now, “that’s why you have some of this disparity between rich companies getting the same (subsidy) as the companies that have real needs,” Barr said. “And I think that’s what we’re kind of learning from this whole process.”
Falling on deaf ears
The leaders of South Hagerstown Fire Co. would far rather have a lot of volunteer firefighters than have a lot of money, Coffelt said.
With volunteers, they could spend the money for equipment and training to help in the city’s firefighting efforts, he said.
But the sad news is, the membership has dwindled so much that the company hasn’t had volunteer firefighters to respond to alarms since November 2009.
Those who do respond are the paid firefighters the city fire department assigns to work out of South Hagerstown’s fire station around the clock every day of the year.
So company leaders had an answer when the newspaper asked them last year about the $627,803 that financial records showed the company had by the end of its 2010 budget year — the most recent year for which records are publicly available.
The financial report South Hagerstown is required to give the county annually shows the company usually spends about $50,000 a year, but earns enough in subsidies and other revenue to increase its savings by as much as $40,000 a year.
When asked about that, company officials said they’d be willing to consider helping other local fire companies, many of whom are struggling financially.
Fire company's honesty about riches could cost it public aid
Still, South Hagerstown might help another company
South Hagerstown Fire Company (By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer / March 31, 2012)