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Fire marshal says he can't audit VFD finances

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Acting state Fire Marshal Anthony Carrico said Tuesday his office doesn't have the staffing or legal authority to conduct audits of volunteer fire departments' finances statewide, as required under a bill passed earlier this year in special session.

Under legislation (HB103) passed April 17 to provide up to $4 million in subsidies to help VFDs pay workers' compensation premiums for firefighters, Carrico's office is to prepare a comprehensive report reviewing all funding sources for all VFDs, and to assess the cost of Workers' Compensation on each department.

Carrico told a legislative interim committee Tuesday that his office can't do that. 

"As far as being actuaries, bean-counters, that's not what we do," Carrico said. "I really wouldn't feel comfortable doing that with my current staff."

While legislative auditors conduct financial reviews of VFDs, Carrico said nothing in the new law gives his office authority to review each department's finances.

"We cannot see anything in the law giving us the authority to walk into a volunteer fire department and say, 'Let us see your books,'" he said. "I believe in full disclosure. I believe these are quasi-governmental entities, and if they're going to be asking for money, they should have full disclosure."

Even if the law granted full access to VFD financial records, Carrico said it would present "monumental challenges" for his office to audit all 419 VFDs in the state, while also fulfilling its statutory requirements for fire safety and fire scene investigations.

"My intent is to make sure you understand the full implications of this law," he told the legislative interim committee.

As part of the privatization of workers' compensation, calculations for premiums for volunteer firefighters went from being based on minimum wage to the comparable salary for professional firefighters on July 1, 2010. That resulted in premiums that doubled or even tripled for many VFDs.

The legislation -- one of several bills that died at the end of the 2013 regular session but was revived in a brief special session in April -- set up a $4 million fund that VFDs can tap into annually through June 30, 2016, to offset the higher workers' compensation premiums.  

Also during legislative interim meetings Tuesday:

James York, director of the West Virginia Port Authority, said he's excited that companies are contacting the authority wanting a specific opening date for the Heartland Intermodal Gateway in Prichard, Wayne County, so they can begin making use of the $30 million facility.

"Right now, it's set for early 2015," he told the Joint Committee on Economic Development. "I personally want to see it open much quicker."

Currently 31 percent complete, the gateway will link U.S. 52 with Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor, running from Norfolk, Va., to Chicago.

The Pritchard site will be a cargo-transfer station, moving freight between tractor-trailers and double-stack rail cars.

Initially, York said plans are to operate three eastbound and three westbound trains out of Pritchard each week, eventually expanding to five-day-a-week runs.

"The state can be very proud of this facility. It holds extreme promise for the future," York said.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220. 


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