Sunlight is the best disinfectant
Barbara Mihelc is unique, but her methods should be common, perhaps even prescribed by Pennsylvania law.
As treasurer for Forest City Area Emergency Services, Ms. Mihelc has employed her experience as a career bookkeeper to demonstrate how volunteer fire companies can avoid the theft of their funds and the life-altering tragedies that often befall members who are caught with their fingers in the till.
An enlightening recent story by David Falchek, in The Sunday Times, The Review's sister paper, detailed many of the theft and embezzlement cases that have plagued many volunteer fire companies in the region, and nationally, over the last several years.
There are several things that can be done by law and policy, but Ms. Mihelc demonstrates how companies can protect themselves.
It begins with transparency. Ms. Mihelc makes the company's financial data available to just about anyone who wants to see it, requires two signatures on every check, issues monthly reports and keeps meticulous records.
That might seem rather basic, but such policies are not codified as state law, policy or regulation, even though most volunteer companies receive some levels aid from the state and local governments.
As state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale noted, his office sometimes performs audits of volunteer companies' finances, but almost always after a theft has been discovered. The auditor general does not have legal authority to initiate such audits without an invitation.
As in any other enterprise, sunlight is the best disinfectant. The auditor general should have the authority to fully audit any company that receives public money, either directly or through affiliated volunteer firefighter relief associations.
The insurance industry has recommended procedures to diminish the prospect of theft, many of which mirror the accounting practices employed by Ms. Mihelc. They include establishing an audit committee, prohibition of cash advances through company credit cards, requiring at least two people to be present when cash is counted, requiring two signatures on checks, and clear delineation of money-handling authority among company officers.
Volunteers work hard to train for their primary mission, which is saving lives and protecting property. State law should have their back by requiring that any company that receives public money for any purpose must establish the fundamental accounting principles and transparency that are keys to preventing theft.
To that end, state lawmakers should reject any movement to amend the state Open Records Law aimed at diminishing that transparency for volunteer fire companies.