Who is watching over the finances of volunteer fire companies?

This article appeared in the Harrisburg Patriot News on Monday.

Dan Gleiter, The Patriot-News/file

“Two Lewisberry Community Fire Company officers are charged with stealing at least $20,000 from the company.

“A Steelton Volunteer Fire Company treasurer steals $55,000 from his colleagues.

“A fire company treasurer is accused of stealing $116,000 from the Goldsboro Volunteer Fire Company and $100,000 from the Penbrook Volunteer Fire Company.

“A treasurer for the former Goodwill Fire Company in Swatara Twp. steals $66,000 from the company’s coffers.

“All within the past year and a half.

“How does this happen? Who is watching over the finances of volunteer fire companies?

“Holes gape in the oversight of firefighter funds, and often the thieves are trusted members of the company who have served their communities for years. They might not start out intending to steal, but dipping into the money becomes a little too easy.

“Most fire companies have two funds, the firemen’s relief fund which comes from the state and must be used for items related to firefighter safety. That fund is audited every two years by the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s office.

“The other is the general fund, which could include donations from municipalities, grants, fund-raisers, Bingo receipts, chicken barbecue money, etc. Financial controls are up to the individual companies. Some hand over management to professionals, and some do a great job themselves with sufficient checks and balances to make sure no money goes missing.

“Others don’t.

  • There are thousands of fire companies in the state, and most have millions of dollars in assets. A new fire truck can run $500,000, a ladder truck $1 million, a fire hall $4 million. A single air pack, which cost a few hundred dollars a couple decades ago, now runs $5,000. Even a fire helmet is $500.

“Most of these companies rely entirely on volunteers, and most of those volunteers want to fight fires, not become fiscal watchdogs.

“‘When I joined in 1990, that was before the Internet, and the fire department was more a part of the community,’ said Bill Carlisle, chief of the Fairview Twp. Fire Department. ‘It had status within the community. People helped no matter what their skills were. But as volunteerism has dropped, the caliber of people who can do financial analysis has dropped. We’re left with just the people who want to fight the fires.’

“In 2006, the Fairview firefighters turned over their finances to the township. It was a hard transition, Carlisle said.

“Before, when they needed a screwdriver, they could run to the local hardware store and buy one. Now they need to make out a purchase order, take it to the township to get approved, bring it to the hardware store, get a receipt, and bring the receipt back to the township.

“Some firefighters felt they had lost a bit of their independence.

“’We had to swallow our pride and realize we don’t have the people or time to manage the money the way it needs to be managed,’ Carlisle said. ‘It’s a full-time job just to plan finances.’

“The fiscal control Fairview Twp. has over the Fairview Fire Department is also what prompted Lewisberry Borough Council to choose Fairview for its fire protection instead of the Lewisberry Community Fire Company, even before charges were filed against Lewisberry’s former fire chief and president.

“Lewisberry borough officials were worried about the volunteer company’s finances for years.

“Borough Council vice president Bob Smith said the fire company leadership ‘was not good at the administrative side and they didn’t like doing it.’

“In September, Lewisberry Borough Council ended its long time association with its 172-year-old fire company, and turned to Fairview instead.

“On Dec. 13, Newberry Twp. police charged former fire company president Jennifer Cassada, 37, of Rio Grande, N.J., and former fire company chief Markwood Albright, 37, of Dillsburg, with theft. They are both headed to court after a preliminary hearing last week.”

To read the article in its entirety, click here.

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