To Avon Grove Residents:
We took note of the recent stories in the AG Sun and the Daily Local News regarding a press release issued by PA’s Auditor General about an accounting review of the West Grove Fire Company Volunteer Fireman’s Relief Association (“WGFC VFRA”). The Auditor’s press release was, in our view, premature and presented an incomplete picture of a still evolving situation. In addition, the AG Sun’s headline was inaccurate, as the correct office is “Auditor General”, not “Attorney General”.
We’d like to make sure the readers of the AG Sun and Daily Local News have a balanced view of this situation, while also providing some background: we have fully cooperated in this audit, we believe many of the auditor’s issues to be matters of discretion and/or judgement that we take exception to, and we intend use the appeal process to try and clear up this matter. The community should be comforted that all funds are fully accounted for, we have already communicated with local township and municipal officials about this matter, and we remain committed to our strong track record as one of the better fiscally-managed relief associations and fire companies in the Commonwealth.
So what is happening?
The WGFC VFRA is a separate legal organization affiliated with the Fire Company. It is funded by distributions from a foreign fire insurance tax collected by the state. Volunteer fire fighters put their time and lives on the line to protect the citizens and property in the municipalities we serve. We have over 75 active volunteers serving for the public’s protection.
The money received from the state by the relief association may only be spent for very specific purposes which primarily relate to education, training and personal protective equipment. Other permitted expenditures include purchase of insurance and providing “relief” to those who are injured in the course of their service. There are rules and regulations which govern relief expenditures as well as record keeping. It is the office of the Auditor General which is responsible to periodically audit the relief association to make sure it is in compliance.
At West Grove, we have regularly participated in those audits over many years, and typically have few if any questions raised – a record we are quite proud of. It is not unusual for such audits to uncover questions, for example, an unclear receipt, a purchase that doesn’t meet the requirements in some unique fashion, or a training record not documented by one of our volunteers.
Typically, a different auditor is involved for each audit, and typically each audit we find the point of view of the auditor with respect to policies and practices to be different. These “differences of opinion” between auditors are a matter of concern to fire company relief associations across the state, who find the lack of consistency year over year, and audit to audit, to be troubling.
As part of a recent audit at West Grove, the latest auditor raised an unusually high number of questions about our practices over a four year period. Each of those questions were answered by our organization – some issues were resolved, and we took some corrective actions. But we raised many issues about some of the auditor’s conclusions, and those issues are in dispute, either because the auditor did not understand our response, would not accept it, or had a different interpretation of the rules.
What the Auditor General’s press release failed to point out is that there is a review and appeal process underway, and the findings of the report remain – in our view – still an open matter, and far from final. So much so, we have sought the assistance of legal counsel, our elected state representatives and the Office of the State Fire Commissioner to help us resolve our issues. At West Grove, we believe many of the auditor’s issues to be matters of discretion and/or judgement that we take exception to, and we intend use the appeal process to try and clear up this matter.
One month ago, we met with elected officials from our townships and municipalities to make sure they had heard directly from our leadership about this disputed audit situation and provide direct information about the situation. We were grateful for their attention, questions, and their support, as they know we responsibly run a financially strong organization.
There is one issue raised in the Auditor General's press release and press coverage that we'd like to address here -- the matter of first class air travel. When our members travel to safety and leadership training classes, airplane tickets are purchased and booked in coach in all cases. On two trips only, the airline offered inexpensive first class upgrades on the day of travel (also known as "gate upgrades"), worth approximately $20 - $50 per passenger. The officer in charge that day made a judgement call to upgrade our four volunteers on a trip to Indianapolis and another time for one person on a trip to Denver. We believe these in total were valued at less than $500. The inference by the Auditor General that our members fly around on expensive first class tickets is inaccurate, unfortunate and out of context. Nonetheless, we regret the negative reputation issue this has raised, and the Relief Association will be reimbursed for these expenses.
To be fair, the auditor did point out some practices that we could improve at West Grove, and we have already implemented changes months ago. Some audit items we agreed with and corrections to our accounting will be made accordingly – we believe these issues are behind us. We are proud of the work of our volunteers to maintain our budgets carefully through the years, and confident the changes we have made address these issues accordingly.
That being said, the inference by the Auditor General that West Grove inappropriately used relief funds, questionably traveled to safety training, or reimbursed our volunteers inappropriately, or that this matter even needs further investigation is unfair, inaccurate, in dispute, and frankly offensive to the hard work and dedication to the Avon Grove community by our volunteer men and women firefighters and officers.
Readers of the AG Sun and the Daily Local News should know we have fully cooperated in this audit, and be comforted that all funds are fully accounted for, and we remain committed to our strong track record as one of the better fiscally-managed relief associations and fire companies in the Commonwealth. The community can be confident that the fire company and the fire company’s relief association are managed by volunteers committed to safety, the profession of firefighting and EMS, and the responsible care and management of public and donated funds. Should there be questions about these issues or anything in the Auditor General’s report, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Flegal, President, West Grove Fireman’s Relief Association
Tom Glass, President, West Grove Fire Company
John Chambers, Fire Chief, West Grove Fire Company