Over a month into fiscal year 2012, on July 20, 2011, when none of the fire companies in Harford County had received the County allotment approved by the County Council, the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association polled the County Government to determine when funds would be released. The Association Treasurer was told that the County was modifying their financial interface with the fire companies and information would be forthcoming.
The County told the Association that they would meet with the Association leadership on August 11 to roll out the new plan. At that meeting the leadership was presented with a memorandum of agreement (MOA) that set several new conditions on companies and defined distribution of funding on a quarterly basis. The Association leadership agreed, in principle to County’s plan, even though it was contrary to the Harford County Code Chapter 1, Article III, §1-33. The County told the leadership, that as an act of good faith, they would release the first quarter funding but would release no further funding until the MOA’s were signed.
The Association and its member companies reviewed the document and requested clarification of vague verbiage in the document as well as correction of several errors. The Association also requested that all companies sign a single document so the individual companies would not negotiate unique MOA’s with the County government.
On August 24, the companies and the Association leadership met with the County Executive and his staff to discuss the issues. The County Executive supported the majority of the changes requested by the fire service.
On September 7, four weeks later, the County Attorney emailed the Association’s member companies MOA’s that still contained many of the vagaries and errors of the original document. The fire service immediately sent back numerous comments to the County.
On September 23 the county attorney sent out an email to the companies stating “Here is the MOA with the final tweaks we are prepared to make.” The message also stated that if the companies did not sign the MOA by October 7, their second quarter funding would be withheld. This MOA version still did not meet the agreements made with the County Executive at the August 24th meeting.
On October 7th the Association leadership met with the County Executive in an attempt to resolve this issue. On October 11th the County issued a final MOA to each company that finally addressed the majority of our concerns and the County’s attorney who created this final MOA commented that Association’s input made this a more stringent document than the county’s original draft. In mid-October the association finally received assurance from Harford County that every company would sign an MOA with exactly the same requirements.
The Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association and its member companies are proud that we provide timely, effective fire and EMS services at one the lowest per capita cost of any metropolitan county in Maryland. According to the “fire study” that was released earlier this year it would cost Harford County taxpayers an estimated $68 million a year to maintain a career type of fire/EMS service within the county.
Recent newspaper articles, especially a cartoon parody and an editorial, concerning this MOA have implied in a disparaging fashion that the volunteer fire system in Harford County has had something to hide by not immediately signing the MOA. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. These stories and editorials send a confusing message to the citizens of Harford County that we have sworn to uphold, protect, and serve. The fire and EMS companies in Harford County want you to know that the safety and protection of you and your family come first to us before any administrative or operational issues that we may be faced with.
In many cases the reasons the MOA was not immediately signed and returned was that the contents of the agreement were being reviewed by association and individual fire company attorneys to help understand and clarify the requirements, and as previously discussed, to negotiate items the association felt important. This is a practice done with every legal document and contract that comes through the association or local fire companies’ business offices. No one enters into a legal agreement blindly without taking time to learn its contents and effects on the signees. It is no different than a private citizen or local business that enters into a legal agreement with another entity and is basic common sense business practice. Not taking the time to analyze this, or any document, would be negligent and poor
fiduciary responsibility by these corporations, their Board of Directors, Officers and general membership. As this document was reviewed by these attorneys it was determined that many of the requirements were items that were already implemented by the volunteer corporations.
Over the past 25 or more years, the association’s companies, without county
prompting, have remained financially prudent with funds provided by Harford County, funds donated by the citizens and funds raised by other sources such as EMS billing. For each of the approximate past 15 years each volunteer fire company in Harford County has submitted a complete audit of their finances, conducted by an independent auditor, to the county government. In addition, each year each company files an IRS Form 990 which is publicly available and each company has maintained bonding or insurance for personnel who handle significant company finances.
I hope this has provided some insight as to our side of the story, the story that is never printed.