Berlin Fire Funding Partially Restored By Council; Reduced Funding Means Tough Decisions Ahead, BFC Officials Report

BFC

BERLIN — A little more than a year after cutting all financial support to the Berlin Fire Company (BFC), the Mayor and Council voted unanimously Monday to restore $200,000 out of the $537,000 that was withdrawn.

There doesn’t appear to be a clear winner in the dispute at this time, with the BFC vocal about its fear that lower funding could impact service, the town still upset over the soured relationship and legal actions from disgruntled BFC employees brewing.

Though it’s a rough start, Mayor Gee Williams said that Monday’s decision to return partial funding to the BFC should be seen as a positive step forward.

“The Mayor and Council believe that tonight marks the beginning of the end of the ongoing dispute between the town of Berlin and the Berlin Fire Company,” said Williams.

The last year has marked a dark chapter in the relationship between the town and the company. In the summer of 2012, the council voted to sever ties with the BFC, due to an ongoing dispute over allegations of harassment by employees and some head-butting over how much the town should try to manage the company’s day-to-day operations.

The loss of funding, about $537,000 annually, was a hard blow, according to David Fitzgerald, the BFC president. Even the restoration of $200,000 of that Monday after a year without funding could come to impact service, he warned, though he clarified that the company is not threatening the town when he says that.

“We have not threatened the town or the taxpayers to stop responding. We have merely stated, factually and directly, that the fire company will have to consider which services that may need to be reduced to mirror the reduction in funding,” Fitzgerald said. “These are not decisions that we want to make. We are being forced to make them.”

With the cost of outfitting a new volunteer member around $10,000 including training and equipment and the constant need for maintenance and replacement of vehicles and gear, $200,000 a year from the town could go quickly, Fitzgerald said. After that, the BFC might need to cut services or coverage or training, he continued, and any diminishment of operation could jeopardize everything from resident safety to home insurance premiums.

The town did not dispute the point, but did question whether BFC finances are in that bad of a spot right now. John Stern, an independent auditor from PKS and Company, reviewed company finances and noted that the BFC is in “a very strong financial position,” with about $2.2 million in reserves as of December 2012. Stern noted the importance of keeping those reserves up but opined that the company should be able to draw from that stockpile for the time being and remain sound fiscally.

The mayor agreed, saying, “I don’t think that the fire company is in a position, based on the information we’ve received, based on the review Mr. Stern made, is certainly not impoverished nor is it on the brink of insolvency.”

The BFC is in a good spot currently, acknowledged Fitzgerald, but the loss in funding from the town threatens that in the long run.

“That $2.2 million, when we start picking away at these capital funds, will disappear very, very quickly,” he said.

Additionally, whenever money is donated to the company, donors usually have an expectation of how it will be used, further tying management’s hands, said Fitzgerald. Money promised for a new firehouse or ladder truck can’t be used on an electric bill as that would “violate [donor’s] trust,” he told the council.

Fire Company Assistant Chief Logan Helmuth further elaborated on how the cost of modern equipment is always in flux and that his firefighters already have to make do with decades old vehicles and gear that is tolerable but could be much better.

That may be but the BFC needs to learn to prioritize so service isn’t impacted, replied Councilman Troy Purnell, even if that means waiting to expand with new stations or cutting back on non-essentials.

“You have the money to do that and our accountant is saying that. Don’t tell me you don’t have the money for that,” he told Helmuth.

Helmuth responded that he was only trying to lay out the challenges the diminished funding represented and that the council should trust the BFC to make those judgment calls.

“We run our business and you run your business. We don’t go by McDonalds and tell them to buy a new fryer,” he said.

However, the council has made it clear that it does intend to take a more active role in reviewing how the BFC budgets. The town will make any future funding contingent upon an annual audit of the company’s finances. This could be a good thing, said Stern, who suggested that the town and BFC approach financial planning together.

Even if the company can get by on $200,000 in funding from the town for the time being, BFC accountant Jay Bergey argued that it is entitled to more. About 58 percent of the BFC’s annual EMS service calls come from Berlin. Because EMS is a roughly $1 million annual cost, that means Berlin is getting about $600,000 worth of benefit despite only paying $200,000 and that $200,000 is actually split between funding EMS and fire service, he said.

“The town of Berlin has never paid its fair share in paying for what the town of Berlin uses,” Bergey said.

Williams promised that the town would like to restore more funding than this year’s initial $200,000 to the company in the future dependent upon those audits and the level of cooperation with the BFC.

“It is not our intention or our desire to keep funding at this level,” said the mayor.

At this point, the meeting nearly wrapped. However, both the town and BFC were reminded of the origins of their dispute when Jeff Dean, a former EMT with the town of Berlin, made a statement imploring the council not to return any funding to the BFC at this time. It was allegations of harassment made by Dean and his colleague Zack Tyndall last year that led the town to investigate the BFC, the first link in a chain reaction that caused funding to be withdrawn and metaphorical fences built.

“You have called for public comment to guide you as you consider returning the funding you withheld last year from the Berlin Fire Company after Zack Tyndall and I and several others disclosed evidence of racial and sexual harassment, sexual assault, retaliation and corruption within the Berlin Fire Company,” said Dean.

Dean’s remarks were vocally objected to by the audience, which included a full house of fire company members and supporters who had been silent up until that point. Several audience members asked Williams to stop Dean while others complained that his harassment allegations were off topic for the meeting, which revolved around funding. Joe Moore, attorney for the BFC, echoed that opinion.

“Respectfully, we were told that tonight was in regard to our funding and not to discuss pending potential litigation or otherwise,” he reminded the council.

Williams agreed that Dean’s comments were not germane to the matter at hand and asked that he only focus on numbers. Dean obliged, and questioned the BFC’s fiscal responsibility, citing alleged expenses like chrome wheels on the chief’s vehicle and “$70,000 on an unwarranted security system.” Purnell spoke up at this juncture and assured Dean that the council had “every expenditure and every check” that the BFC has made recently and are aware of all of the finances.

Fitzgerald seconded Purnell’s comment.

“They have the checkbook for three years … we’re as transparent as we can be,” said the BFC president.

Dean refrained from finishing his remarks, but did make a written statement available to the media. In it, he further accuses the company of misconduct in the treatment of himself and Tyndall. He also references a car accident that was investigated by the Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services Systems (MIEMSS) this winter, blaming the BFC for the fatality.

However, it should be noted that the MIEMSS investigation found pre-hospital emergency services and transportation were up to par and the company was not at fault in that fatality, though they did find “significant, underlying tensions surrounding the delivery of medical services in Berlin.”

Dean also alleged that MIEMSS urged the Berlin council to take care of its own EMS service instead of relying on the BFC, with the state agency even offering to help facilitate the transition. But Williams flatly denied Dean’s claim and said that in neither written nor verbal correspondence did MIEMSS ever suggest that the town take over EMS services and definitely did not offer to help make that a reality.

Though Dean’s allegations didn’t gain traction at Monday’s meeting they are expected to turn up again in court, with Dean filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Should they support his claims, it will almost certainly lead to a lawsuit. Tyndall is further along that track and has an $8 million lawsuit pending against the BFC.

Returning any funding to the BFC at this time would be a mistake, Dean concluded, and would be used in the defense of those lawsuits.

“The world awaits your decision, far beyond the walls of this room or the borders of this village,” wrote Dean. “Berlin markets its small-town charm, but it is a fine line between quaint and backwards.”

For its part, the BFC has publically promised in a letter to residents not to use town funding for legal defense with the pending lawsuit but will instead take care of that with insurance. Williams said this week that he’s ready to take the company on its word in that regard and imagines the public backlash should that not be the case would be harsh.

The meeting ended on a lower note, with the council not taking further comment after Councilwoman Lisa Hall argued that it would be pointless to keep going back-and-forth over the past 18 months of contention.

“I’m not proud of how the Berlin Fire Company and the Mayor and Council have let this roll to this level,” said Hall, who added that she does believe some town residents feel less safe and are afraid to speak out against the BFC regardless of their assurances otherwise.

Despite any lingering hard feelings, Williams chose to take an optimistic view of the meeting and the relationship between the town and company.

“I think the first steps in a journey like this are the hardest,” he said.

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