County’s Grant Funding For Berlin Comes With Warning To Do Better Supporting Emergency Services

County’s Grant Funding For Berlin Comes With Warning To Do Better Supporting Emergency Services
Berlin Mayor Zack Tyndall speaks with the County Commissioners on Tuesday. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Despite concerns about the level of funding the town is providing to its fire company, county officials agreed this week not to cut the Town of Berlin’s unrestricted grant.

The Worcester County Commissioners voted unanimously this week to reverse last week’s decision to reduce Berlin’s annual grant for fiscal year 2022 by $115,000. They made it clear, however, that maintaining fire company funding would be a key issue moving forward.

“If we give them the $115,000, we have to put them on notice that this is not going to happen anymore. Period,” Commission President Joe Mitrecic said. “In the future, any municipality that cuts funding to fire/EMS because of an increase from the county, that they lose their unrestricted grant. All of them. All $465,000.”

Last week, the commissioners expressed concern about the level of funding the town provided to the Berlin Fire Company for fire and EMS services. As a result, they agreed to cut the town’s $465,000 unrestricted grant by $115,000 to supplement the county’s direct EMS funding for the Berlin Fire Company.

Berlin Mayor Zack Tyndall approached the commissioners Tuesday to ask them to reconsider that decision. He said the town’s practice was to devote its $465,000 in unrestricted county funding to police, fire and EMS.

“We take that whole $465,000 and divert that directly into those services,” he said. “So, a reduction by $115,000 is going to have a sizeable impact on what we’re able to do and the level of service that we’re able to help fund for the residents of Berlin.”

Though the commissioners last week indicated that the town had reduced its funding to the fire company when the county had increased its funding to the agency, Tyndall said that was not the town’s practice. He said that when the town could afford to, it provided the fire company with more than its usual $400,000 grant. In fiscal year 2019, the fire company received a grant for $605,000 from Berlin. In fiscal year 2020, it received $544,000 from the town.

“Then we hit a rough time with our budget and we had to reduce back to that $400,000 base rate,” he said. “At the same time we were making equitable cutbacks in every single one of our departments.”

According to figures Tyndall provided, the town funded the Berlin Fire Company at more than $500,000 annually from 2007-2012. Funding was cut completely in fiscal year 2013, however, because of harassment claims against the agency. Those claims, reported by Tyndall, were eventually the subject of his $8 million lawsuit against the Berlin Fire Company, which was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2015.

After the dramatic cut in 2013, the town restored some funding to the fire company in 2014 and in 2015 provided the agency with $400,000 it could split between fire and EMS operations. That funding level was maintained until fiscal year 2019, when the grant was increased. After being increased again in 2020, it was dropped to $400,000 for the current fiscal year. The town plans to fund at that same level in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Tyndall told the commissioners this week the town was trying to “work toward restoring” its relationship with the fire company and needed its annual $465,000 grant to help do that.

“At a time where we’re working to rebuild something that’s not been a very good working relationship between the town and the fire company, we don’t want to erode that in any way,” he said.

He added that compared to other municipalities, the town invested substantially in its fire company.

“But you’re growing,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said. “You’ve annexed an awful lot.”

Commissioner Jim Bunting voiced similar concerns, pointing out that the town had cut funding to the department after fiscal year 2020 while expanding the fire company’s coverage area.

“Do you think that’s fair?” he said.

Tyndall said the town increased fire company funding in the years it was able to. Bunting went on to point out that the funding the town was seeking from the county for a Rails to Trails bike program would be better spent on a fire company grant.

Tyndall responded that bicycle safety was public safety.

“We work in local and county government,” he said. “We understand that we have to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to invest in streets, we have to invest in the different departments that we have. We can’t just look at them through one lens.”

Tyndall added that he was likely the only person in the room who had worked for every EMS jurisdiction in the county during his time as a paramedic.

“I understand how difficult the job is,” Tyndall said. “I also understand that’s why we have many people that dedicate themselves as volunteers… Berlin has a base level of crew they provide and they lean on those volunteers to help drive the ambulance, help staff second crews. That’s done county wide. It’s provided an excellent level of service to the people that live here and visit. Is there a better way to do it? Yes but it takes more money. Unfortunately, what I’m telling you is that we do not have that additional money this year within our municipal budget to direct that way.”

Commissioner Ted Elder said Tyndall was in front of the commissioners, asking them not to cut funding, when the town was cutting funding to the fire company.

“It’s the exact same thing and you’re here complaining about it,” he said.

Commissioner Diana Purnell said Berlin had done well to revitalize itself and that Tyndall was doing the best he could. She added that when the county had tough years, the commissioners asked county departments to work with flat budgets.

Bertino said that while it wasn’t the commissioners’ place to tell Tyndall how to run the town, when faced with a difficult financial situation in 2015 they’d raised taxes.

“All of us took a very deep breath and did what we didn’t want to do,” Bertino said. “What we did was we raised taxes. We raised taxes because we needed to balance the budget and we needed to ensure we did pay the minimum costs of what we were trying to do.”

Following Tyndall’s presentation, Mitrecic said he was worried about the retaliation the fire company would face if the county cut Berlin’s grant. Bunting agreed that the town would just take that same amount out of what it provided to the fire company, which would defeat the purpose of the commissioners’ recent efforts to bolster EMS funding countywide.

Bertino said it wasn’t fair that county taxpayers were funding much of the EMS expense in Berlin.

“The town has not been managed in the best interest of taxpayers or the community,” he said. “They didn’t do what needed to be done as far as taxes. As a result the town taxpayers were hit with a rather large tax increase all in one year. But that’s not our business… However, it’s very clear to me at least that over these many years that they weren’t doing what they should have been doing the county taxpayers were footing the bill.”

Elder said the town presented no data to support the $400,000 it called its base rate. He said the town was cutting funding for the service the commissioners were reinforcing with an extra $1 million across the county.

“We’re trying to make sure the citizens of the county are protected with EMS service and we’re fighting the Town of Berlin who’s going the opposite way,” he said. “We need everybody on board, not just us.”

Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said if officials wanted a long-term funding solution for EMS, which is the focus of a new county committee, they’d have to work with municipal leaders. He suggested waiting for the committee’s funding level determinations before making cuts to Berlin’s grant.

Mitrecic agreed that it wouldn’t be fair to cut the grant this year.

“Moving forward we’ll look at this,” he said. “The fact that the mayor ran on a ‘no tax increase for Berlin’ is not our problem. Although he has made it our problem, it’s not our problem.”

Bertino said there was a difference between campaigning and governing.

“That was what he ran on and I think he maybe should have done a little more research before he did that,” Mitrecic said. “I’m not sure that even with this $115,000 that they’re going to be able to take care of the people of Berlin but that’s not our problem.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to restore the $115,000 to Berlin’s grant for the coming fiscal year, bringing the town’s total unrestricted grant to the $465,000 it typically receives.

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.