Berlin Fire Company Seeking $900K In Next Fiscal Year

BERLIN – The Berlin Fire Company is asking the town for more than $900,000 in funding for the coming fiscal year.

While town staff presented a proposed fiscal year 2020 budget that included $544,500 for the fire company — a reduction of 10 percent over the current year — fire company officials presented a budget request for $909,000 in town funding at a work session Monday. Questions from town council members targeted the fire company’s new station as well as the fact that its EMS operations face funding shortfalls while fire company accounts contain close to $2 million. Councilman Troy Purnell suggested the fire company finance its new Station 3 and use fire company reserve funds to cover EMS funding gaps.

“If we’re restricting you moving those funds around, I want to see that changed because it’s all Berlin taxpayers’, county taxpayers’ money,” Purnell said. “If we’re the ones that are hamstringing you from moving your cash around or financing it, I want to make it easier on you.”

Berlin Fire Company (BFC) officials presented the council with a proposed budget seeking $350,000 in fire funding and $559,000 in EMS funding. Those funding requests would go toward operating expenses as well as capital purchases, as several new vehicles are needed.

David Fitzgerald, president of the BFC, said the county funded its fire companies through a funding formula and suggested the town develop something similar. In 2018, 46% of the fire calls the BFC responded to were in town while 58% of the EMS calls the BFC responded to were in town.

When Councilman Dean Burrell asked if he was correct in stating the fire company had about $2 million in the bank, Fitzgerald said he was but stressed those funds could not be used for EMS operations.

“We are not to comingle the funds,” Fitzgerald said, adding that the fire company and EMS operations were now two separate corporations.

Town Administrator Laura Allen asked if that rule applied to expenses too.

“If it’s a legitimate expense you can post those back and forth,” Fitzgerald replied.

Purnell asked if the fire company was able to borrow or finance funding when needed.

“As long as we have a way to pay it back…,” Fitzgerald said.

He added that the fire company’s rates were reviewed regularly and there was a good collection rate.

“We can charge all we want but it’s just going to lower the collection rate and increase accounts receivable,” he said.

Fitzgerald said that because town officials said they’d welcome suggestions to help address municipal funding challenges, he proposed Berlin use its casino revenues to support the BFC. He said that instead of using the funding to pay off the town’s new police station early, the town could use the money for fire company funding, which was also a public safety need.

Fitzgerald also proposed that in the future, the town explore funding the fire company with a portion of its property tax rate. He suggested .16 of every tax dollar could go to the BFC —.10 for fire and .06 for ambulance.

Councilman Thom Gulyas asked why the BFC expected to spend $40,000 on office supplies in the coming year.

Fitzgerald explained that roughly half of that was being used for new computers — the purchase of which has been put off in recent years — and some would purchase the accessories needed to work with the county’s new RedNMX reporting system.

Mayor Gee Williams praised the fire company’s budget presentation.

“There’s a lot more detail and I think that helps everyone,” he said.

Purnell said he didn’t see how the fire company was funding Station 3, which is currently under construction on Route 50.

“I see you borrowed $800,000 but your contract’s for $2.2 million,” he said. “I don’t see anything on here that shows how that gets paid for.”

Fitzgerald directed him to a line for debt service, which indicated that the fire company planned to pay off the $800,000 it borrowed by repaying $100,000 each year over a period of eight years.

Purnell said that didn’t address the rest of the station’s cost.

“We’ve raised funds,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve had three large donations and some pledges to build that station …”

Fitzgerald went on to ask the council if the town could provide its quarterly EMS payment of $88,750 — expected to be provided around April 30 — early.

“That’s what we’re operating EMS on now, paycheck to paycheck,” Fitzgerald said. “We don’t have the reserve fund in EMS.”

Purnell went back to the issue of the new station and how it was being paid. He suggested financing more of the cost of the new station and transferring some of the fire company reserves to EMS. He said the practice of not transferring funds between the two entities should be changed.

“It looks like you’ve got a bunch of cash,” he said. “If you financed that firehouse instead of using cash for it, it would ease that cash crunch you’ve got. It would also ease the cash crunch we’ve got. It might help us all out.”

The council agreed to provide the BFC with its EMS funding allocation early.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.