BERLIN – A presentation of the recently completed fire company funding study resulted in a tense debate between town officials and Berlin Fire Company supporters this week.
On Tuesday, Robert Finn of Matrix Consulting Group presented the findings of the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Funding Study conducted by the firm. While Berlin Fire Company (BFC) members in attendance questioned the need for changes when the town and agency had worked together well for decades, Mayor Gee Williams said there was a need for accountability in today’s world.
“It’s not about the people it’s about the system,” he said. “We’ve got to have a system that is accountable and transparent.”
Finn reviewed the recommendations from the report, which include using the fire company as a staging area for ambulances during special events, minimizing use of Main Street, decreasing use of the outdoor siren and establishing a contract for services with the town, among other things. He said the company’s expenses were rising at a faster rate than its revenues but said the agency was managing its money well.
Finn said a contract between the town and fire company would ensure that it was treated like one of the town’s departments.
“It gives a mechanism for the town to have some control over how monies are spent,” he said.
Finn also recommended that the BFC develop a formal apparatus replacement plan.
“They’ve got a plan but it’s not a formal schedule,” he said.
When a resident referred to the study as a “witch hunt,” Williams said the town had never criticized the quality of the service the BFC provided.
“The issue is the funding, accountability, transparency of finance,” he said.
BFC member David Lewis said the said the town’s tax base appeared to be increasing thanks to new development and annexation. Williams said that regardless, the town would have to raise property taxes to generate additional revenue. He said that in order to get an additional $600,000, for example, the town would have to increase the property tax rate by 11 cents. Williams said that currently, the town had one of the lowest tax rates in the region.
“We can’t maintain that and also provide all the services, all the support, that is needed — apparently — from this study,” he said. “We’re not against that but we have to work together, we have to become partners.”
Williams said that because taxpayer funding was being used, the public needed to know how it was being spent. When Lewis questioned whether 11 cents was truly the increase that might be needed, Williams confirmed that it would take an 11-cent increase to generate an additional $600,000 in revenue.
“I wouldn’t say it publicly if we hadn’t looked at it and looked at it and looked at it,” he said. “We obviously are not trying to do this from the seat of our pants. We trying to figure out how do we get from where we are to a better place for everyone.”
Williams said the town depended on a gradual increase in property tax revenues to offset inflation.
“It costs more next year to do whatever we’re doing this year,” he said. “It’s insidious. It’s under the radar but it’s constantly happening.”
At the mayor’s reference to inflation, longtime BFC member Marc Brown pointed out that in 2011, the fire company received $576,000 from the town. Now, he said that in spite of inflation the agency received $400,000 from the town.
Brown also talked about the transparency Williams said was needed.
“The 33 years that I’ve been in the Berlin Fire Company there has never been a year that I know of that we did not go to the mayor and city council and go line by line and answer every question…,” he said. “It’s always been a two-way street until the last five or six years.”
Brown said the fire company had lost 57 members in the past eight years.
“These aren’t just old people,” he said. “We are feeling the effects of not being supported financially by our town.”
Finn said that fire companies nationwide were losing volunteers because of increased training demands and difficult work schedules, among other reasons.
“The loss of volunteers isn’t a local issue,” he said.
Williams told Brown the need for transparency had increased in recent years.
“It’s a difference in the times,” he said, adding that the fire company had $2.2 million in cash.
Councilman Dean Burrell said that while everyone had a different opinion, officials from the town and fire company needed to work together. He said the town was willing to increase taxes if that’s what it took to equitably fund the fire company.
“We’re ready to do that but it has to come under public scrutiny,” he said.
He said it had never been the town’s intention to underfund the fire company.
Councilman Zack Tyndall said he thought the town and fire company had been working well together recently.
“We’ve had meetings, ample meetings, with the leadership of the fire department and they’ve been very productive,” he said.
A fire company member in the audience said he didn’t understand what had changed between the town and fire company in recent years.
“Up until about five to eight years ago we had no problems whatsoever…,” he said. “What’s changed? We still give you everything you want.”
Williams said the way money was handled at the fire company was “a carryover from a different time.” He said the town just wanted the BFC to do more to show how money was accounted for.
“None of this is radical,” he said. “None of this is unique. It is very much standard operating procedure.”
Jay Bergey, the fire company’s accountant, objected to the mayor’s references to the BFC operating on a “cash basis.”
“I’m sitting here listening to this s— and none of you guys know what you’re talking about…,” he said. “The financials are done on accrual basis not cash basis.”
He said the bottom line was that the town received 57 percent of the fire company’s service yet funded just 27 percent of its budget.
“Dean hit it right on the head,” he said. “There’s so many opinions and all that kind of bulls— going on it’s just a lot of mumbo jumbo smoke and mirrors.”
Williams, approaching Bergey, objected vehemently and said that the town would not give the fire company $1 million or more in funding and have things done “the same old way.”
Burrell said everyone had different ideas and opinions.
“But for this thing to work we’re going to have to try to understand each other. I’m going to have to try to und where you all are coming from and you’re going to have to try to understand where we are coming from,” he said, heading toward the door. “To sit in a public meeting and say you don’t know s—, I don’t want to be in here. I bid you goodnight.”
Tyndall agreed that it was a “tad bit disrespectful to curse in an open meeting.”
David Fitzgerald, president of the BFC, went on to ask Finn what sort of funding scenario he saw for the fire company going forward.
Finn said there were various options. He said one possibility was an annual grant with line-by-line accounting, while another was a funding agreement similar to the one Worcester County used, which provides companies with “x dollars per year and then x dollars per call.”
“It’s a little less predictable on each side,” he said.
Another option would be a flat annual fee.
“We see that changing, where there’s no cost controls for how money is spent,” he said.
When asked about his time as a fire chief, Finn said his department had handled about 1,400 calls a year and had a budget of roughly $6 million.
“A department that had three stations running, similar call volume to what we are and you’re talking six times what you’re potentially going to fund the fire department,” Lewis said. “It’s going to take a lot more than 11 cents.”
Williams said it would be a transition.
“We now have to go forward and we have to do this together,” he said.