Berlin Budget Passes Without Fire Company Funding; BFC Attorney Requests More Talks

BERLIN — Despite an 11th hour request, the Berlin Fire Company (BFC) will not be included in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget for the town of Berlin, but the Mayor and Council did agree to continue a dialog and left open the option of revisiting the budget.

Unanimously passed Tuesday, the FY14 budget for Berlin will total $13,514,462, a 2-percent decrease from last year’s budget. However prior to the budget being voted on Tuesday night, BFC representatives asked that the council meet with company leadership with the goal of being included in the budget for FY14

BFC attorney Joe Moore acknowledged that the relationship between the town and the company has been frayed over the last year, but advised Mayor Gee Williams and the council that everyone should move on to reach a mutually beneficial situation.

“Mayor, back in November you and I had a discussion that probably got to a point that I regret, on my part,” said Moore. “And we’re here to try to get the council, between now and the time that you decide your budget, to consider funding the fire company.”

It has been a rocky year between the town and BFC. Personnel and scheduling disputes between the two led the council to sever all funding, roughly $600,000 annually, to the BFC last summer. While there has been some tense public and private moments since then, Moore reminded the council that the BFC has asked several times just to sit down with town leadership in the hopes of ironing out any wrinkles and restoring some, if not all, of the lost funding.

“I think you all know that we have been asking repeatedly to have meetings with you all,” he said.

Since January, the town has refused to have any type of meeting with the company until it divulged a significant amount of financial data. That information, said Moore, was submitted on May 16 by BFC President David Fitzgerald and encompasses a 74-page packet.

It’s not all of the information that the council requested but should be enough to bring the town to the table, according to Moore.

“We believe that the substantial amount of information is here for us to begin our dialog. And we believe that while there isn’t a whole plethora of time left, there certainly is ample time for us to get together, present whatever additional information you believe that you need and have a discussion on these items,” Moore said. “We have set forth our replacement budgets, we’ve set forth our reserves, we’ve given you our tax returns and we are hopeful that we can find a way to be included in the budget for fiscal year 2014.”

The council didn’t dispute that the information was submitted but several complained about how long it took to be received. The original request was made on Jan. 8, noted Councilman Troy Purnell, but the packet wasn’t submitted until the middle of May.

“It’s unfortunate that it took that long and it’s still incomplete,” he said.

In response to Moore’s reminder that the BFC has been seeking a meeting for months, Councilwoman Lisa Hall said that it was not fair to blame the council for not going to the table until that information was submitted.

“I feel like the ball has been in their court since Jan. 8,” she said.

Williams saw it likewise and told Moore that the BFC wouldn’t have been the “last piece” of the budget if that information had come in sooner. It was late in the game, Moore admitted, but there was still time.

“It’s late in the day, I understand that, but it’s not midnight,” he said.

The 74 pages of information that has been submitted should be enough to get the ball rolling and the company would be flexible in working through the budget process, said Moore. He added that the documents given to the town “shows clearly our need” for funding and that the company is only asking the town to fund 20 percent of EMS service calls even though Berlin is responsible for 59 percent of those calls.

“As Mr. Fitzgerald has said, we can’t sell enough fried chicken and we can’t have enough breakfasts at the fire hall to make up for what we hope you will consider re-funding to the fire company,” said Moore.

Administrator Tony Carson said staff wouldn’t have sufficient time to review the information submitted by the BFC and attempting to do so would severely hamstring the budget process.

“It’s taken six months to get this information. I think that it’s unfair that our professional staff will only have at most a couple weeks to analyze it,” he said. “It’s too big of a decision to ask us to rush when we don’t even, first of all, have all of the information as of today. I don’t feel that we will be able to give you that answer prior to needing this budget to be passed.”

Once all of the information was reviewed, the two sides might be able to come to some arrangement, the mayor said, and at that point the budget could always be amended.

“I think that way we’re not putting artificial pressure on either party,” he said.

The council voted 4-0, with Councilman Elroy Brittingham absent, to accept the FY14 budget without the BFC represented.