Delaware task force focuses on eliminating firehouse embezzlement

(Zoë Read/WHYY)

(Zoë Read/WHYY)

A task force created to prevent embezzlement at Delaware volunteer fire companies held its first meeting at Legislative Hall in Dover Wednesday.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have disappeared from volunteer fire companies in the past couple of years.

The task force, comprised of state legislators, members of the State Fire Commission and the state’s Office of the Controller General, say one person often has sole power over finances, which makes companies vulnerable to fraud.

The task force is designed to identify problems in the system and make recommendations on how to appropriately handle finances. Members say it’s not a “witch-hunt,” but a forum to help fire companies improve.

“It’s trying to help, not punish,” said State Rep. Daniel Short, R-Seaford, one of the sponsors of the legislation that created the task force.

A former treasurer of the Millville Volunteer Fire Company was indicted in August for one of count of theft of more than $100,000, which he allegedly used for high-price personal purchases.

Two years ago, the Marydel Volunteer Fire Company’s president and treasurer, who are married, also were accused of questionable spending of thousands of dollars.

The task force said incidents like these are not uncommon.

The group said a major problem is that finances are managed by a sole individual, who is not a professional accountant.

“If you’re a treasurer and have full access, you can have access to a whole lot of money in an account no one knows about,” said Tom Wagner, the state’s auditor. “It all gets down to one person having too much control.”

He said board members of fire companies need to be responsible for overseeing spending accounts.

“Sometimes board members don’t ask the tough questions that need to be asked,” Wagner said.

Short said it’s challenging to convince fire company members to volunteer to oversee funds.

“Administrative function is boring,” he said. “That’s not why most people join the service.”  

Wagner suggests an outside group should report spending every few months to avoid misspending.

“You’ve got to be a fool to steal money when someone’s going to be looking at transactions every three months,” he said.

Wagner added that allowing the treasurer access to a debit or credit card is another mistake needed to be eliminated.

 “It’s really easy for me to buy a saw for the fire company, when I’m really using it for my back yard,” he said.

Delaware State Fire Commissioner Ron Marvel said without strong oversight, the temptation to misuse money can be too much to resist. 

“When you have a credit card and debit card, and you can use it when you want and you’re raising a family, and they think ‘I can pay it back’—and it doesn’t get paid back,” he said.

The task force will create a questionnaire to send out to fire companies to learn more about their current financing affairs. The group will then work to create recommendations on how to improve.

“There needs to be some changes in financial accountability and responsibility,” Marvel said. “This is not against the fire department; it’s for them—to make them better people and more accountable to the people about their money.”

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