OCEAN CITY — Frustrated with the growing strain of providing emergency services to West Ocean City, resort officials this week voted to calculate the cost and send Worcester County a bill.
During a large debate about the Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) adding an additional two-person ambulance crew during the offseason to handle the growing number of calls for service, the discussion inevitably came around to the issue of Ocean City providing fire and EMS service in unincorporated West Ocean City.
For the record, the OCFD handled 1,000 calls for service in West Ocean City in 2018, including 144 fire calls and 856 EMS calls. While the county does provide grants to the town of Ocean City for providing the service, resort officials believe those grants don’t come close to covering the cost. During Tuesday’s work session, Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the expense of providing service to West Ocean City accounts for around one-sixth of the department’s total budget.
“Our taxpayers pay $6 million for a world-class fire-EMS service,” he said. “About 17% of that is $1 million. They’re using $1 million of our money to provide service in West Ocean City. That’s one penny on the tax rate. We’re going to ask our taxpayers to pay more to protect an area out of town. That’s not an issue for today, but it should be tomorrow.”
As it turns out, it was an issue for Tuesday. Mayor Rick Meehan called for a change in philosophy with the county over compensation for providing fire and EMS protection in unincorporated West Ocean City.
“We did ask the county to form a task force to begin examining fire and EMS service all over the county and we got no response,” he said. “I would like to calculate what it costs to provide service in West Ocean City minus what we get back and send them the bill. You keep bringing it up, let’s just send them a bill.”
Dare said West Ocean City residents and businesses get bills for water and sewer and other services provided by the county.
“I think it’s time for people in West Ocean City to help pay for the service,” he said. “The billing doesn’t come close to covering our cost.”
Councilman Matt James made a motion to calculate the town’s cost of providing emergency services to West Ocean City, minus the funding returned in the form of grants, and send the county a bill. Council Secretary Mary Knight seconded the motion. However, Councilman John Gehrig said sending the county a bill seemed like a measure of last resort.
“I’d like to try to continue to work with the county,” he said. “I think we need to have a conversation before we just send them a bill. I do believe we could put them on notice after we’ve had the conversation if we didn’t get any results.”
Meehan said many of those attempts to work with the county on the issue had been exhausted.
“We’ve had the conversations, we’ve sent the letters and we’ve invited them over here to discuss this,” he said. “All we get are blank stares and shrugged shoulders.”
Councilman Mark Paddack agreed sending a bill might be one of the few options left.
“They’ve had plenty of opportunity to address this,” he said. “What if we asked our fire chief to cut $1 million from the budget, not that we wouldn’t answer calls, but for all of the other stuff we provide out there.”
The motion to calculate the cost of providing service to West Ocean City minus what is returned and sending a bill to the county passed with a 6-1 vote with Gehrig opposed.