CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Volunteer fire departments are noble, protecting smaller communities that can't afford full-time paid firefighters. The volunteers deserve praise for their life-protecting service.
Kanawha County has 27 VFDs and a half-dozen paid departments. The county commission gives each $20,000 yearly support from taxpayer money. The rest of their funding comes from various government grants, public fees and community money-raising events.
The VFDs have an obligation to operate responsibly -- but one has become a headache, causing endless confusion and problems.
Chesapeake's nonprofit volunteer fire department reaps millions from state-authorized bingo and raffle gambling -- yet it says nearly all the money goes for prizes, and the VFD can't pay its gasoline bills. The department fought fiercely to conceal its finances, and even asked Kanawha County commissioners to hide its records from the public.
Why do leaders of the community VFD want to prevent Chesapeake residents and Kanawha taxpayers from learning what it does with public and semi-public funds?
No wonder county commissioners have been practically tearing out their hair during a long-running confrontation with the organization.
Last year, the situation became so intolerable that commissioners ordered an $18,000 audit of the VFD. Auditors were stymied because many records were withheld or missing. VFD board chairman Steve Johnson refused to say how much he earns from a radio sales-and-repair business operated by the fire department. Auditors said he told them "what he earns is no one's business."
The VFD board allegedly authorized a total of $80,000 in salaries for Johnson and his son, but records of the board meeting can't be found.
State tax reports say the Chesapeake unit grossed $4.2 million from bingo and raffles in a past two-year period, but netted only $11,000 after paying prize winnings. Few records can be found to verify the totals. Other records show hundreds of payments to unidentified people in amounts of $100 to $260.
More recently, Danny Forinash of the state Tax Department says the VFD reported $2.2 million gambling in 2010, with $169,300 earnings after prizes and expenses -- and $1.9 million in 2011, netting $124,475 after overhead.
It's disturbing for a quasi-governmental agency to cause so many problems. Total openness is needed.
As we said, VFDs are community treasures -- but they should behave responsibly.