BERLIN — With Berlin’s budget season approaching, both town leadership and Berlin Fire Company (BFC) representatives agreed that the dispute between the two agencies over funding might be nearing resolution.
As has been the tradition with the conflict, however, neither side could make any guarantees.
“I certainly hope that we have all that we need so all of this can be considered during our budget process,” said Mayor Gee Williams.
While the BFC was included in the budget last spring, it was only a few months later that the Town Council severed all funding with the company over a number of issues including alleged employee harassment and scheduling disagreements. Company officials have stated that they hope to recover as much of the roughly $600,000 they lost as possible and fear that ongoing funding cuts could negatively impact things like equipment maintenance and training programs.
There are two approaching conditions that might affect the BFC getting on the town’s budget. First, an investigation by the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Service Systems (MIEMSS) on the handling of an accident scene in late December has yet to yield a judgment.
“The investigation is still in progress and pending,” said BFC President David Fitzgerald.
Secondly, earlier in the winter the council requested private financial information from the BFC. Both the town and company leadership stepped back to let their respective attorneys handle that discussion.
Williams confirmed this week that the information finally seems to be on its way to the council.
“I have no reason to doubt that they’re getting together the information we need,” he said.
Williams said that he hopes some kind of agreement can be reached over funding before the town finishes its annual budget process this spring. The ball is in the company’s court, explained Williams, with delivering that financial data.
“We’re just basically letting them do what they need to do but I think the more timely we get the information the better it is for everybody,” he said.
Though the BFC has been asking since the split began last summer to involve an unbiased, third-party mediator in the dispute, Williams said this week that the council would like to avoid going that far.
“Everybody keeps saying that we have to have a mediator,” he said. “I think that we can work this out without having to have a third-party in it as long as we all take it one step at a time.”
Fitzgerald felt the same and said that it would be “ideal” if the town and company can settle their troubles without needing outside intervention.
But while the BFC hopes to see some funding returned this cycle, Williams has made it no secret that he doubts the council will give back the full $600,000 annual grant that had been the tradition.
This week, the council approved a $300,000 contribution from the general fund to the new stormwater utility every year. With that $300,000 spoken for, Berlin no longer has more than $600,000 excess in the general fund, so to restore the entire grant to the BFC this spring would require shifting monies within the budget or a tax increase.
But while the funding dispute continues, both the company and the council agreed that fire service remains excellent. Last Thursday the BFC responded to a fire at town hall, which was quickly extinguished, prompting the mayor this week to formerly write the organization a letter of thanks and to say that their “differences have nothing to do with the provision of services by the volunteer fire company in its firefighting capacity.”