Salisbury, County Square Off Over Fire Service Funding

SALISBURY — In a debate rife thus far with ultimatums, the latest in the dispute over a fire service agreement between Salisbury and Wicomico County was sent this week when County Executive Bob Culver set a deadline for Friday for the city to decide if it was still going to provide service to the at-large areas of the county.

The City of Salisbury last month warned Wicomico County if an agreement could not be soon reached on an equitable cost-sharing fire service agreement between the two jurisdictions, the city would be forced to suspend fire and emergency services to the at-large areas of the county outside city limits. Salisbury officials have contended the city responds to nearly 63 percent of the total fire calls in the county and roughly 67 percent of all EMS calls in the county.

In addition, the city reportedly serves about 56 percent of the entire county population and 58 percent of the county’s assessed property valuation. Despite those numbers, Salisbury received only 24 percent of Wicomico’s total funding for fire and emergency services in 2014. Mayor Jim Ireton and city officials last week urged the county to come to the table to start working on a fire service agreement that would more equitably compensate Salisbury for the services it provides to the county outside city limits.

While there have been meetings and discussions, the two sides still appear to be far apart. In an attempt at gaining leverage, Ireton in April announced the city would no longer be able to afford to provide fire and emergency services to the at-large areas of Wicomico effective July 1. With the ultimatum on the table, Wicomico County appears to be on the clock to come to an agreement with Salisbury on the fire service agreement or look to other volunteer companies in the county to fill the void.

Culver said this week he and his staff met with the Volunteer Fire Chief’s Association to determine a contingency plan if an agreement can’t be reached and Salisbury pulls out on July 1 as planned. Culver issued his own ultimatum of sort to Salisbury, asking that the city’s decision on the proposed pull out on July 1 be made by this afternoon.

“A question that I must have answered promptly is whether the city will discontinue fire services in the county as of July 1,” he said this week. “In discussions with EMS personnel and county volunteer fire personnel, we will need 10 weeks to transition from city services, and therefore a response must be received from the city no later than Friday, May 1.”

Culver said pending that answer, the county will likely move forward in one of two ways. If all services continue as they currently are, the county will honor its commitment to its funding of the three fire stations in Salisbury just as it has done in the past. In addition, the county will agree to sit down to continue to discuss a long-range plan for a new Fire Service Agreement. Those discussions will take into account all of the services related to providing public safety in the city and county based on sound accounting principles.

However, if the city decides to pull services on July 1, Wicomico will withdraw all funding currently in place in the county budget for the three city fire stations that serve Wicomico and redistribute it to the four volunteer fire companies in the county that will fill the void. In either case, Culver said the at-large areas of the county will be protected.

“I have spoken to affected volunteer companies and we will leave no citizen unprotected,” he said. “This is not something I have taken lightly. The ongoing goal is and should be to provide effective and efficient fire safety and ambulance services to all residents and that those services are funded in an equitable, affordable and sustainable manner.”

Meanwhile, Salisbury and Wicomico officials continue to seek some common ground on the issue and another meeting was held on Tuesday, the results of which have not been made public. Salisbury has offered some solutions to resolve the fire service agreement issue including an assessable base model, a five-year reduction plan and perhaps most importantly, an equitable compensation plan.

“It is important to know that Salisbury has been seeking an equitable fire service agreement for 10 years,” Ireton said this week. “That is approximately $14 million in free services provided by Salisbury taxpayers. We can negotiate boundaries for the fire district, but we cannot afford to give away any more money or provide more service.”

Late last week, Culver and Wicomico officials asked Salisbury for clarification on several key issues related to the costs of services and the percentage of the city’s services provided to Wicomico.

“In the last 24 hours, we have gotten a multitude of questions and we have provided the requested documentation and information almost instantly,” he said. “My job was to get the county to the table. The council president’s job is to change the way we do business in providing fire and EMS service.”