Monitor Fire Departments

Neffs Fire Chief Mike Knowlton told our reporter a bankruptcy filing by the department will not interrupt firefighting and emergency medical services. “We are going to be here,” Knowlton emphasized.

Still, the department has a long climb ahead of it, to get out from under a mountain of debt.

Department officials filed for bankruptcy protection last month, listing a debt of more than $800,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, along with smaller amounts owed to the Ohio Department of Taxation and other state entities. Liabilities totaling $1.84 million and assets of $755,000 were cited.

But the department has something of an ace in the hole. It has leased mineral rights on more than 56 acres. A “bonus” check of nearly $400,000 is expected this month. If drilling is successful, the department will collect 20 percent royalties on gas and/or oil produced from the tract.

It may be that the department needs just a little breathing room to get its fiscal house back in order. But the question of what went wrong remains.

In an affidavit accompanying the bankruptcy filing, the department’s former chief, John Driscoll, stated an employee of the unit was supposed to have been making payments to the IRS and the state agencies – but did not. Instead, money that should have gone to Washington and Columbus stayed in the department’s general fund, presumably to cover operating expenses.

Clearly, that went on for some time before being discovered by Neffs Fire Department officials.

Had they learned of the problem sooner, the department probably would not have built up the enormous debt.

Neffs and Bellaire-area residents are fortunate the fire department will continue serving them. Had it been forced to close, thousands of people would have had to depend on other fire and emergency medical departments to protect them.

Still, to judge by the liabilities and assets listed in the bankruptcy filing, it was a close call.

It is not part of state and federal tax officials’ jobs to watch out for the well-being of small fire departments, of course. But had the failure to send money owed to the tax agencies been known sooner by Neffs Fire Department officials, they might have been able to avoid building up such a big debt.

Perhaps officials at the Auditor’s Office or some other state agency should consider regular monitoring of entities such as independent fire departments, both paid and volunteer. That could provide early warning of trouble while it still is merely smoldering, instead of blazing furiously.