BERLIN – Town officials questioned the Berlin Fire Company’s plans to build a new station as funding needs at its primary location grow.
Following a budget presentation by David Fitzgerald, president of the Berlin Fire Company (BFC), town leaders said funding would be put to better use at the organization’s Main Street headquarters than on a new station outside town limits.
“I don’t understand why you want to build something two miles down the road and not take care of what you have,” Councilman Thom Gulyas said. “It just doesn’t make fiscal sense.”
Fitzgerald, joined by Fire Chief Jim Corron and EMS Chief Duane Phillips, outlined the fire company’s annual funding needs for town officials during Monday’s council meeting. Their presentation came after PKS & Company told the council the fire company had total net assets of $5.6 million and was a in a “very healthy” financial position.
As they went line by line through the 2017-2018 budget, Fitzgerald and his associates pointed out numerous areas where they’d been forced to make funding cuts in an effort to make ends meet.
“They’ve had to do an unbelievable job cutting this to bare bones,” Fitzgerald said.
Financial documents he shared with the council showed a budget of $725,000 for the fire side of the company and a budget of $1.3 million for EMS. The EMS operation shows a shortfall of $44,000 which Fitzgerald said would be balanced by personnel reductions. Phillips said that last year, he augmented the BFC’s EMS service with part-time personnel. Though volunteers helped in the past, he said that was becoming less frequent.
“It’s hard for volunteers to maintain certification on the EMS side,” Phillips said.
Because of the budget shortfall, Phillips said he would not be using the part-time personnel this year after Labor Day. Personnel costs, totaling $1,259,440, make up 94 percent of the company’s EMS expenses.
As for the fire side of operations, equipment is projected to cost the department the most in the coming year. The budget includes $323,000 for new fire apparatus. Other significant expenses include $66,500 for fire equipment, $50,000 for building maintenance, $46,500 for insurance, $40,000 for volunteer incentives and $40,000 for utilities.
Corron said he’d removed funding for a new small truck from the budget in order to save money. He added that many of the fire gear expenses were unavoidable, as equipment had to be replaced on a certain timetable.
“We have no extra gear in our reserves,” he said.
Fitzgerald told the council that despite the healthy BFC finances described by John Stern of PKS & Company, cash flow was an issue for the fire company.
“He’s added every fund together,” Fitzgerald said. “We don’t operate like that.”
Councilman Zack Tyndall asked if the fire company ever financed its equipment purchases.
“We try not to,” Fitzgerald said. “Why pay interest?”
Stern, however, said it was normal to finance equipment over its lifetime.
“You should be managing your money better,” he said, pointing out that what the fire company had in the bank was earning very little interest. “With proper professional management, those numbers could be a lot higher.”
Mayor Gee Williams told Fitzgerald the town had budgeted $250,000 for the fire company. He said he didn’t see the $150,000 capital portion of that grant in the fire company’s numbers.
Fitzgerald explained it had been removed because it would be used to fund the capital needs study being mandated by the town.
“We don’t think it’s going to cost anywhere near that,” Williams said.
Williams said the study was critical because as one of the entities financing the department, the town wanted an understanding of the fire company’s capital needs. He said the BFC had already set aside “$1.2 million for a station many people feel is not even needed.” BFC headquarters, meanwhile, requires improvements.
Phillips, however, said that money was earmarked for a new station.
“Community members donated that money for a specific station,” he said.
Fitzgerald said the proposed station, which would be located on the north side of Route 50 east of Friendship Road, had been planned for years. It would include three bays and provide maintenance space for vehicle maintenance. He said it would serve the expanding community.
Williams said there was a “philosophical misunderstanding,” as the town’s taxpayers helped fund the BFC yet its priorities appeared to be outside Berlin.
“It was clearly demonstrated to us that there are major improvements needed at headquarters,” he said.
He said the capital needs study would identify the fire company’s current position and potential options for capital improvements going forward.
He pointed out that the historic center of Berlin was where there was likely to be the most need for fire protection.
“Brand new buildings historically don’t catch fire and burn down as fast,” Williams said.
He said that ideally, the study would take place this fall so the town would have capital information by the time next year’s budget process started.
“Until we have some independent comparison there’s just a lot of questions and I think they’re legitimate questions,” he said.
Williams said it was disturbing to hear that the fire company would be cutting EMS operations when there was a “grand scheme” for capital improvements. He stressed the importance of the study.
“I think we have an opportunity here to work together,” he said. “We’re committed to getting this study done.”
Councilman Dean Burrell agreed.
“It is our hope the study will answer some of these questions,” Burrell said.
Phillips said members of the fire company were eager to work with the town in getting the study done, as it would benefit all involved.
“We look forward to working with you,” he said.