Berlin Residents Share Concerns Over New Response Fee

Berlin Residents Share Concerns Over New Response Fee

BERLIN – Residents continue to have concerns about a new emergency response fee implemented by the Berlin Fire Company.

Resident James Walsh approached the Berlin Town Council Monday to express frustration with the response fee now being charged by the Berlin Fire Company. He said the public should have been made aware of it before it was implemented.

“I think it’s totally illogical to have a business, a private entity, institute or implement a policy without any oversight or any input from the citizens who live in the town that it effects,” he said.

Though Berlin Fire Company representatives attended Monday’s meeting to share their regular quarterly report, they left before Walsh brought up the emergency response fee. The fee was previously discussed by the council in September, when council members were initially contacted by residents surprised to receive bills for fire company response. At that time, Berlin Fire Company President David Fitzgerald said the new fee, which ranges from $250 to $1,000, was similar to the existing EMS fee and was designed to help address the agency’s financial challenges.

This week, Walsh asked elected officials if they approved of the fire company implementing a billing program without any citizen input.

“In order to have a public hearing it has to be a town related matter,” Mayor Zack Tyndall said. “It’s a town related matter because it impacts our citizens. I don’t disagree with you. But we don’t have any ability to say that they can or cannot implement that fee.”

Tyndall pointed out that the town provided the fire company with a $400,000 grant annually and this year had also provided the agency with $125,000 for additional EMS staffing and $225,000 for capital.

“A lot of taxpayer money is going to the fire company,” he said.

Tyndall added that the fire company also received significant funding from Worcester County and the state. This year, that funding exceeded $1.3 million.

“How much cash flow do they need?” Walsh said.

He questioned whether the fire company would be billing his insurance company if he declined to pay the response fee after firefighters came to his home.

“If the answer is yes, that’s absolutely criminal in my mind,” Walsh said.

He said it seemed as if the council had no fiscal oversight when it came to the Berlin Fire Company.

Tyndall said the town had fiscal oversight once a year—during the budget process.

“We found out about that fee afterward,” he said. “Our ability to do anything about that, it’s not there right at this moment.”

Councilman Jay Knerr said the council could send a strongly worded letter to the fire company expressing the concerns with the fee.

Walsh said the fee didn’t bode well for the future.

“I think that thought process is going to take us down a path eventually that’s going to implode,” he said.

Walsh said that if insurance companies ended up being billed whether residents wanted them to be or not, people would start hesitating to seek help from the fire company. They’ll be worried about their rates going up and will question whether they should even seek help, he said.

“I think that’s going to have a terrible impact on people who are going to call 911,” Walsh said. “That’s not what we want.”

Tyndall said that was not something he wanted to see either.

“The last thing we want is for people to hesitate to dial 911 for the police department,” he said. “We are not billing for police services.”

When the fee was discussed last month, Fitzgerald said the fire company membership had voted to implement it in 2021. He 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.

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.