Four years after a consultant pointed out unaudited accounts and no-bid contracts, and called for changes in how Charles County's fire and rescue services spend public money, officials have undertaken few of the suggested reforms.
Leaders of the all-volunteer fire and rescue force, which spends more than $5 million annually in taxpayers' funds, believe their budget procedures are sound, said Rudolf A. Carrico Jr., chairman of the Board of Fire and Rescue Commission.
The board on Tuesday gave elected commissioners a 25-page summary of a comprehensive plan intended to become the guiding document for fire and rescue services in the county of about 120,000 people. Commissioners asked few questions, and said they would seek further public comment on the plan.
The plan calls for adding six fire stations to the 12 that now serve the county, and four more ambulances. It set no timetable.
The plan builds upon a consultant's study completed in 1995 by Capitol Safety Systems, a North Carolina firm that examined funding, water supply, training and other aspects of firefighting and emergency medical services.
The consultants made no suggestion that money was spent illicitly.
"I think they do a good job overall," Randy Egsegian, a co-founder of Capitol Safety Systems, said in a telephone interview Friday. "For a totally rural area, you're about par. But that's not good enough."
The 156-page consultants' report found the county receives "an adequate level of service" from its all-volunteer system. More than 1,100 people staff 12 fire companies, 14 emergency medical stations and a dive team.
Citing increasing needs as the county grows, the consultants suggested instituting paid positions, first in emergency medical services and later -- after five to 10 years -- in fire services.
Charles fire and rescue officials rejected that suggestion, calling retention of the all-volunteer system their top priority.
The plan given commissioners on Tuesday makes little mention of a series of financial reforms suggested by the consultants.
The consultants found that companies do not always receive funding proportionate to the number of service calls they receive, that there is little comparison of budgets to actual expenditures and that "more accountability is demanded of public funds."
Taxpayers provide about two-thirds of fire and rescue funding through a charge of 16 cents per $100 of assessed value on property. Another 29 percent of all funding is raised by the volunteers themselves through bingo, benefit dinners and other fund-raisers. Grants and interest supply the remainder.
The fire and rescue companies are independent, incorporated bodies that traditionally enjoy wide latitude in setting policies and procedures.
The consultants' recommendations included:
An annual audit of at least five randomly selected companies.
Fire officials rejected this because audits would cost several thousand dollars each, Carrico said.
A review of loans taken out by companies to see if they could be refinanced at lower rates that could be secured by county government.
"We're comfortable with the interest rates" being paid, said Carrico. He could not say how they compare to rates the county pays on its loans.
An end to the practice of paying companies for responding to a call. Currently companies can receive $50 to $200 for doing so. This encourages companies to send more vehicles than are needed, the consultants wrote.
Carrico said "there could be a tendency" for the practice to generate excessive trips, "But we don't think it's to such a degree to cause a revision."
Establish open public bids on all purchases over $5,000.
Carrico said fire officials had not yet begun such a practice, although they had "taken a step in that direction" with the open-bid purchase last year of eight ambulances. He estimated the bid procedure saved about $2,000 on each vehicle.
Vehicle purchases are the companies' second-greatest expense, behind constructing stations. In the six years leading up to 1994, companies spent $3.8 million on 34 new vehicles, according to the consultants' report.
In its recommendation to the commissioners, the fire and rescue board said it wants to establish uniform standards and competitive bidding for vehicles such as ambulances, small trucks and sedans used by chiefs.
However, large vehicles like pumpers and ladder trucks would continue to be procured by single-source methods because companies have specific needs that can best be met by collaborating with one supplier, said Samuel Y. Bowling, who represents volunteer firefighters on the fire board.
Egsegian, the consultant, said in the interview that large, expensive vehicles should be subject to competitive bidding. "A pumper gets the hose and the water to the fire and pumps," Egsegian said. "It's not that unique."
Commissioner Marland Deen (R-Waldorf), the county commissioners' representative on the fire board, said officials would consider greater financial scrutiny as the comprehensive plan is reviewed in coming months.
"We want to tighten up the financial part of it," Deen said. "We want to look very carefully, cautiously at that. Where there are adjustments, protect the all-volunteer system."
He called the abundant number of volunteers "an indicator of our sense of humanity in this county."