Creating a committee to study the complex issues surrounding fire department funding in Worcester County is an appropriate direction.
Though they face similar issues, mostly centered around funding, the needs and concerns of the various fire departments in Worcester County vary by their response areas. Forming a committee of commissioners, fire service leaders and county staff to dive into the unique intricacies and offer recommendations to the entire group of commissioners is a prudent plan.
It’s going to take time for this workgroup to come to a consensus on a plan to address concerns over equitable fire/EMS funding, ensuring safe and adequate response times and all the variables associated with protecting the community during a pandemic.
A common theme throughout the committee’s work will be funding. The individual departments need more to continue providing fire/EMS service for their response areas. They are going to need the county’s help as well as their municipalities. How much money is needed depends on the department, but the committee is inevitably going to be required to put a dollar figure on the improvements they hope the county will approve.
In what will surely be a tight budget process this spring, funding will be a huge unknown. The fire companies need more money due to reduced volunteers, the pausing of most community fundraising opportunities, limited manpower due to budget constraints, increased call volumes and rising expenses associated with the pandemic. The money will most likely have to come from a new funding source, such as an emergency services fee or what is commonly known as a fire tax in some jurisdictions.
Much of the committee’s discussion should deal with funding. The issues are well documented. How to address them is the dilemma facing this committee. A fire tax is a good starting point for the committee. In some areas, a fire tax computation is derived off property value. It’s going to be a difficult proposition because now – a time of economic uncertainty for most middle-class individuals — is not the time to ask for more from property owners. However, these are long-standing issues involving public safety in need of attention. A plan is needed, even if it features non-accomplishable goals in 2021.
County Commission President Joe Mitrecic had it right when he called the situation a difficult one with an unpopular solution nobody wants to talk openly about. “This is going to be tough because you’re going to have to find a way to fund this and there’s only one way,” he said. “We all know what that is. We’re going to have to convince the citizenry this is the right thing to do. So I would say that anybody that wants to serve on this committee better be ready for that. There is no other way. Property tax dollars only go so far.”
There is much work ahead, but the committee approach is a solid one with recommendations issued from the experts for the elected officials to consider in time. We would expect this to be a long-term process with no easy fixes for this budget year.