Commissioners Apologize To Upset Fire Company Officials Over CARES Act ‘Runaround’

Commissioners Apologize To Upset Fire Company Officials Over CARES Act ‘Runaround’
Leaders from Worcester County’s fire departments aired their concerns over CARES Act funding before the County Commissioners Wednesday. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Local fire company representatives pleaded with the Worcester County Commissioners this week for funding support from the CARES Act.

The commissioners said at a special meeting Wednesday that county staff would meet later this week to go over each fire company’s CARES request. The commitment to reviewing grant applications comes as the county’s deadline to spend its $4.5 million in CARES funding nears and fire companies’ requests have yet to be answered.

“What we seem to forget, especially at the highest level, is we’re in a pandemic,” Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers said, adding that local fire companies needed financial support. “We are on the front lines.”

Wednesday’s special meeting, held at the Snow Hill Volunteer Fire Company, kicked off with Commissioner Joe Mitrecic’s assurances that county officials wanted to provide fire companies with funding from the CARES Act.

“We want to give you the money. That’s what it comes down to,” Mitrecic said. “You have to fill out the proper paperwork and you have to substantiate what you need money for.”

Mitrecic said the commissioners agreed to set aside $80,000 — $50,000 in payroll and the $30,000 CARES balance — for fire companies at their last meeting.

“So there’s $80,000 left of $4.5 million for fire companies?” asked Steve Grunewald, fire chief at the Ocean Pines Volunteer Fire Department.

Mitrecic said there was other money that hadn’t been spent yet.

“There could be more than that,” he said.

Tim Jerscheid of Stockton’s fire company said he’d emailed county administration regarding CARES Act funding as early as May. He said it was frustrating that fire companies had yet to have their requests granted when officials were talking about how the funding had already been spent — or had been proposed to be spent — in other sectors.

“The riverboat thing threw everybody for a loop — which was not your guys’ fault but was a misunderstanding — but when you start seeing stuff in the newspaper or the press it’s hard…,” said Jerscheid, who serves as president of the county Fire Chiefs Association. “You understand where my level of frustration is.”

Commissioner Jim Bunting said he was equally frustrated.

“I’ve been disgusted for two months now because I’ve got emails from Showell, from Bishopville, I keep going back to (Chief Administrative Officer) Harold (Higgins) and saying ‘Harold these guys do have legitimate items they should be reimbursed for through the CARES Act money,’ Bunting said. “I keep getting the same runaround you’ve been getting. I’m sitting here saying I’m sorry that it’s got to this point where we’re running out of time.”

He said the commissioners should order staff to meet with the fire company representatives and go over the paperwork.

Mitrecic said he was also dissatisfied with the current situation.

“We’ve been asking for this also and finally got a report at the last meeting,” he said. “It’s not just you all that have been frustrated by this. This is something that, back in May and June, I don’t think anybody knew what you had to do to get this money and what qualified what didn’t qualify. September, October, we really should have been able to hone in on it by then. You should have gotten your money.”

Grunewald said he felt the county had mismanaged the money.

“I cannot comprehend why the fire service is getting $80,000, just to use that number, when all these other counties around us are getting millions upon millions of dollars,” he said.

Commissioner Chip Bertino took exception to the word mismanaged but agreed the current situation was despicable.

“If I were you I’d be just as angry as I think you all are for not getting the response, quite truthfully, you should expect and we as commissioners should expect,” he said.

When asked if the county was applying for COVID-19 funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young — the only administrative staff member present — said the county was not.

“What staff is saying is that it’s not as simple as just passing the paperwork on,” Young said. “It takes time and they do not feel they have the manpower to adequately handle FEMA grants with risk of an audit. Not to mention this entire CARES Act money could be risk of an audit.”

David Fitzgerald, president of the Berlin Fire Company, said the county was facing a critical deadline, as the county only had until Dec. 15 to book its CARES funds. He added that the county had never balked at applying for FEMA funding when there were hurricanes or other disasters.

Jerscheid pointed out the county had an emergency management staff that should be handling issues like COVID-19 funding.

“You guys have lost your money with some of the people you have working for you,” he said.

Young, who pointed out that the staff members being criticized were not present to defend themselves, said that in addition to the $80,000 earmarked for fire companies, the county also had $145,000 set aside for CPR machines. He said that if those weren’t needed, that funding could also go to fire companies for COVID expenses.  He stressed that CARES Act funding could not be used to replace revenue, so companies couldn’t cite a lack of fundraisers as a reason to need funding.

He said roughly half the county’s CARES Act money went to businesses as grants. A quarter of its CARES funding went to municipalities.

Of the remaining 25%, he said some had been spent on PPE, some on sick leave for county staff and some on virtual learning costs and meal programs for the Worcester County Board of Education.

“The money went to a variety of good purposes however it’s clear you need more,” he said.

Young encouraged fire companies to forecast their needs going forward, as COVID related expenses would go into 2021.

The commissioners said that staff would meet Thursday morning to review the fire companies’ funding requests. Mitrecic said that as president of the commissioners he was embarrassed the situation had gotten to this point. He said the commissioners would meet more regularly with fire company representatives going forward to establish a long-term plan on how best to fund the county’s fire companies.

“We realize the importance of you all in our community,” he said.

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.