"Very poorly run" was the opinion of the state comptroller's office this week in regard to the finances of the Westfield Volunteer Fire Department.
Overall, the report revealed, thousands of dollars - anywhere from $5,000 to more than $10,000 - were not properly accounted for in recent years due to a lack of documentation or funds from the department being withdrawn by the use of a debit card.
Who is responsible for the missing - or possibly stolen - money? Nobody is really singled out in the report, but blame needs to fall at the feet of village and town officials as well as the officers of the department.
Taxpayer dollars and donations fund local volunteer departments. Financial accountability - as with any non-profit - is essential, especially in this day and age when cash-strapped agencies have turned up the volume in terms of seeking funding due to cuts in state and federal budgets.
Unfortunately, Westfield's department is not alone. There are other local departments throughout the region that, like Westfield, have not turned in proper documentation to the Internal Revenue Service regarding revenues and expenses.
Because these documents are not filed, the departments can go under the radar, not disclosing the amount of money they have raised through public donations and through tax revenues.
Some of the departments that have filed IRS documents reveal some interesting facts. One local "volunteer" department pays its officers an annual stipend. It is not a lot of money, but a volunteer normally has that title because he or she is not paid.
Another department reported a surplus of more than $34,000 in 2010.
But in Westfield, an investigation - as is usually the case - has pointed out all that is wrong. None of the good things - those tangibles residents endorsed when supporting the organization, such as its service to the community, quick response and its priority of helping others in their time of need are mentioned in the report.
Those "good deeds" still need to be celebrated and praised.
As for the audit's findings, officers of the department have responded to the 13 recommendations, agreeing with all. That is a positive sign for the department and those who have supported it in moving forward.
One more sign of good will in the future would be for the department - and all other local departments - to do a report to the community. Tell residents how much money was raised and document the expenses and revenues for the year. The report could be made available at village and town halls as well as the departments.
Almost all non-profit agencies and charities already do this. Why can't an arm of government do the same?
If residents want to know how money is being spent, the department will have quick access to it through the report. Who knows, it may even lead to more donations.
But right now, too many local departments are bringing in the bucks, and not telling residents just how much money they have access to - and spending.
That trend needs to stop. Especially before any other audits become public.
John D'Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to email@example.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.