SNOW HILL – Ocean City officials told county leaders this week the resort would no longer be subsidizing emergency medical service in West Ocean City.
Mayor Rick Meehan asked the Worcester County Commissioners to decide whether they wanted Ocean City to continue providing EMS service to West Ocean City. He said that if the county did, the commissioners would need to cover the cost, as Ocean City’s responders were struggling to keep up with demands within town limits.
“We are one call at times away from a disaster,” Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers said.
Meehan said he was approaching the commissioners directly after a November letter and a meeting with Commissioner Joe Mitrecic and Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins yielded no results. He said that while Ocean City had provided EMS service to West Ocean City for years, the cost had risen as development there had increased. Ocean City currently has 42 fulltime EMS employees and numerous part-time responders but is still struggling to meet demand.
“We’re in a critical situation in Ocean City where we don’t have units available to service residents of Ocean City at all times because we’re out of units…,” he said. “Many times that’s because those ambulances are in West Ocean City, which means we have to have more personnel, more ambulances, to provide those services.”
According to Meehan, in 2018 Ocean City responded to 828 calls in West Ocean City. That call volume represented 13% of the calls Ocean City EMS staff responded to in 2018. While Ocean City received some revenue from patients and through the county’s annual ambulance grant, Ocean City still covered $395,089 of the cost of West Ocean City calls in 2018. Adding in the calls that have been covered by the new Paramedic Unit 7, the response to West Ocean City has cost the resort $458,843.
“The most important question I need to ask is do you want us to provide EMS service to West Ocean City area?” Meehan said. “When you provide a service you have to be paid for providing that service. The taxpayers of Ocean City can no longer subsidize half a million dollars a year to provide service outside the municipality.”
Bowers said that every time EMS responders went to a call in West Ocean City it depleted the available personnel and increased response times.
“A third of the time we run out of crews is because I have units in West Ocean City running calls,” Bowers said. “That means there’s no units available to run 911 calls at times.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting said he wasn’t prepared to make a decision on the issue yet.
“Let’s put our cards on the table,” he said. “If you don’t get an answer today what action are you going to take?”
Meehan said the city would not be including funding to serve West Ocean City with EMS service in its budget.
“There is a real economic issue here,” he said.
Meehan said that if the county were to put together its own crew that would come at a cost of $1.6 million.
“And that’s just for personnel,” he said, adding that Ocean City was willing and able to continue providing service to West Ocean City if it was compensated.
Commissioner Chip Bertino said the issue wasn’t uncommon and that the county should research state guidelines before making a decision. He pointed out that all the local departments were struggling to fund EMS services.
“We’re looking at just one sliver of this situation,” he said. “I think we should be looking at it holistically and not piecemeal.”
Meehan pointed out that the county and Ocean City had discussed the issue years ago.
“I realize batting the ball back over here is a political move but that’s ok,” he said, adding that the issue had been discussed when Sonny Bloxom was president of the commissioners 20 years ago. “We brought this to President Bloxom, you know what he told us? He told us to stop providing the service.”
Meehan said Ocean City hadn’t done that because municipal leaders didn’t think it was the right thing to do.
Bertino reiterated that EMS funding was a countywide issue not just a concern in Ocean City. He acknowledged that Ocean City and the county hadn’t always had the best relationship.
“It always seems like we’re trapped in the past about what happened before,” he said. “We need to let that go.”
Mitrecic said that the discussion needed to continue, particularly since Ocean City had to develop its budget before the county’s was finalized.
Bunting said county fire chiefs had discussed the concept of EMS districts at a recent meeting.
“I think that’s something we need to talk about,” he said. “We can’t make a decision today but there are some good ideas here.”
The commissioners agreed to meet with county fire chiefs and then continue the discussion at a work session.