Berlin Fire Company Implements New Fee

Berlin Fire Company Implements New Fee
File Photo

BERLIN – A new emergency response fee is expected to help address financial challenges at the Berlin Fire Company.

In a work session Monday, Berlin Fire Company (BFC) representatives reviewed a new emergency response fee with elected officials. Council members weren’t aware of the fee until they were contacted by a concerned resident who’d been surprised to receive the charge.

“I wish you would have notified residents you were implementing this fee,” Councilman Jay Knerr said. “You could have easily done that in your annual solicitation.”

Mayor Zack Tyndall said Monday’s work session had been scheduled because the council wanted to hear from BFC leadership about the new emergency response fee being charged when the fire company responds to an incident. BFC President David Fitzgerald said the new charge—which can range from $250 to $1,000—was very similar to the EMS fee that’s been billed for several years.

“The fire and rescue billing is something we’ve talked about for three, four, five years,” he said.

Fitzgerald said that typically, the fee was covered by insurance—homeowners insurance in the case of a house fire, for example, or auto insurance in the case of a car accident.

While BFC membership voted to implement the fee in July 2021, Fitzgerald said billing was very sporadic, as the fire company was learning the process.

In July 2022, the fee began being charged regularly.

“We do send out the bills,” Fitzgerald said. “We talked about a company to do it but we wanted to be more friendly. It’s new.”

He said similar fees were being implemented by fire companies throughout the county as they struggled to generate revenue.

“The funds we receive from county and town, they’re helping us provide the basic service,” he said. “This is the actual response. This is the same thing that’s been done for emergency medical services for years.”

Fitzgerald said that with the irregular bills sent out by the fire company last year, the new fee had brought in about $2,000.

Councilman Jack Orris pointed out that with more than 400 runs, the income could be substantial.

“It could generate revenue for the fire company to help balance the operating budget,” Fitzgerald said.

Knerr and Councilman Dean Burrell both said the fire company should have shared that the fee was being implemented.

“It would have been a very good idea to have given us a heads up,” Burrell said.

When he asked about anticipated revenue, Fitzgerald said it was too early to say.

Knerr pointed out that with the BFC’s annual EMS solicitation, residents who donated a minimum of $50 weren’t responsible for any balance that might remain after insurance companies were billed. He said the same practice could be implemented for fire and rescue.

“I think if you did that you’d probably generate more revenue,” he said.

Fitzgerald said it was a good idea and could be considered prior to next year’s fire company solicitation.

Burrell reiterated that town officials should have been aware the fee was being established.

“I think we’ve been working on some ways we can improve communication…,” Tyndall said. “When something like this comes up let us know.”

During Monday’s work session Fitzgerald also talked to elected officials about the rising costs of ambulances. He said the BFC’s three ambulances needed to be replaced every 10 years.

“Safety comes in play if you start stretching these ambulances past 10 years,” he said.

Ambulances now, however, cost more than $300,000 and Fitzgerald believes they could eventually exceed $400,000. He said the county had increased the allowance it provided per ambulance—BFC now gets $45,000 a year from the county in ambulance allowances—and he was hoping Berlin would increase its contribution as well. He suggested using casino revenue.

“Dedicate it to all public safety, not just the police,” he said.

He added that the fire company had to know it would have the funding available before placing an ambulance order. He’s anxious to nail down funding details soon because one of the ambulances needs to be replaced in 2025.

“We need to start acting now to make sure we are set up for the 2025 unit,” he said.

Tyndall suggested the fire company share any information it found regarding financing ambulances with town officials. He said providing $90,000 to the fire company for ambulances in the next fiscal year was not likely an option for the town. He indicated the new response fee was a good idea and was no different than the way the town charged its customers for services like water and sewer.

“With all the enterprise funds, we don’t just come back to general fund and say we need the money,” he said. “It’s a charged-out service. You’re there with EMS. You’re headed that direction with fire…. You should be passing that along in billing the same way that we do for other enterprise funds.”

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.