Fire co. should open books

A new agreement between Hollidaysburg’s Phoenix Volunteer Fire Company and the borough involving limited access to company financial records has been touted as “a good steppingstone.”

But it’s something much less than that.

The sooner the “good steppingstone” is cast aside in favor of full transparency, the better.

What exactly is the fire company afraid to show?

Borough residents’ tax dollars and gifts support the fire company. Therefore, they are justified in being concerned that a significant measure of financial secrecy is destined to continue.

Earlier this year, Phoenix and the borough were locked in a dispute over an insurance policy the fire company purchased without prior discussions with the town’s elected officials. Borough officials were entitled to prior notice because the borough had paid for the policy that was being replaced.

Also a source of dispute was the borough’s attempt to review the fire company’s financial records, which company officials refused to provide.

The council even had offered the fire company a $10,000 increase in its annual allocation in exchange for the opportunity to review the records – an offer the fire company refused.

The council should not have offered to buy the sought-after access.

In a March 17 editorial, the Mirror questioned: “Why a fire company that has provided such top-notch service for as long as anyone remembers would not now be equally committed to unfailing dialogue with the governing body or bodies that support it financially?”

That question remains relevant.

The “good steppingstone” now in place will allow borough officials to review a separate checking account into which the borough’s $48,500 annual allocation will be deposited. However, the new agreement fails to inform borough residents – whose tax bills are the source of the company’s allocation – how prior years’ allocations were spent.

It’s a puzzling and troubling scenario, despite there not having been any allegations of financial wrongdoing directed toward the company.

Is the current transparency chasm between the company and borough a product solely of personality clashes? Has an attitude evolved within the fire company that its importance to its service area trumps any obligation to answer to anyone?

The compromise to which Borough Manager James Gehret and fire company President Dave Zeek alluded in regard to company records, going forward, is a disservice to the community’s right to know.

The fire company has received good news that a state audit of the Phoenix Firemen’s Relief Association, a separate legal entity from the fire company, turned up no issues with the relief association’s procedures that only covers state funds.

But that good news is tempered by the lack of full openness on the fire company’s other financial front.