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Task Force to Examine Delaware's Volunteer Fire Departments

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Fire trucks sit in the bay of the Harrington Volunteer Fire Department. Fire trucks sit in the bay of the Harrington Volunteer Fire Department.

DOVER, Del. -- A Task Force formed by the General Assembly will examine ways to ensure Delaware's 60 volunteer fire departments spend the public and private money they receive for the right reasons.

The task force, which was scheduled to hold its first meeting Wednesday night, will look at reports from the the state auditor's office, will explore whether there are enough safeguards to prevent misuse of fire department funds. 

The auditor's department said one of the most recent incidents happened this year and involved a former state treasurer of the Millville Volunteer Fire Department who was accused of stealing more $190,000 of fire department funds for personal expenditures.

House Minority Leader Danny Short (R), a former chief of Seaford's volunteer fire department, is a co-chair on the panel. He said the pall cast on some agencies because of controversies involving misuse of funds can hurt recruitment efforts.

"It kind of plays back to that volunteer status and being able to attract good people. If there's big problems, people don't want to come help solve the problems. They want to go where there's the least amount of problems," he said.

State Auditor Tom Wagner said most of the cases his office has looked into have involved situations where only one or two people oversee funds within the departments. He acknowledged there is an ongoing case his office is looking into, but would not name the department.

The use of volunteer fire departments in Delaware saves the state roughly $180 million a year, according Wagner.

Kenny Brode, the assistant fire chief of the Harrington Volunteer Fire Department, said the department requires a certain number of signatures from officers for expenditures, does not use credit or debit cards for expenses, and has not been flagged for improper use of money in annual audits by the state.

However, he noted that publicized incidents where other fire departments' funds had been misused has harmed the reputation of other agencies in Delaware. 

"It's like any organization: you have a few bad apples but that doesn't reflect the entire fire service in the state of Delaware. These guys are hard working. They're all honest. They do what they're supposed to do."

Short said putting more checks and balances into place to look into systems like credit and debit card use by department officers would likely be a helpful step.

"That stuff is easy to solve," he said. "Once you kinda minimize the opportunity for the people who take advantage of you, a lot of that other stuff goes away. It's just best practices that we're looking to put into place."

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