Emergency Services, Public Safety Talk Budget Requests

OCEAN CITY – Lengthy discussions on salaries and full-time personnel highlighted this week’s budget work session with emergency services and public safety officials.

A review of the coming year’s budget continued this week with a work session of the Mayor and Council Monday. Representatives with the beach patrol, fire and EMS, the police department and more presented elected officials with their proposed spending plans for fiscal year 2024.

Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald said an increase in salaries and additional hiring incentives highlighted many proposed budgets. Under beach patrol, officials have proposed a $5,619 increase in salaries and wages, and a $25,000 increase in the department’s rental housing stipend.

“We are doing everything we can at this point,” he said. “It’s been a tough year.”

Officials said efforts to fill the beach patrol’s ranks have been challenging ahead of the summer season. When asked if the housing stipend has helped, Theobald he did not know.

“We are going to find out,” he said. “Hopefully.”

Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin said several factors have made hiring a challenge this year. He highlighted increased housing costs and competitive wages.

“We are now behind the other beach patrols on Delmarva,” he said.

Arbin said he hopes the beach patrol will have enough lifeguards for the coming season. While advertising and recruitment have been successful, he said hiring has been a challenge.

“Yesterday, we had 20 sign up for the test, and eight showed up,” he said. “You have to swim to be a lifeguard. We’re having people who can’t even complete the swim or the run.”

When asked about wages, Arbin said other beach patrols paid between $1 to $1.50 more per hour. Theobald, however, said it wasn’t the only issue.

“We’ve done everything we could do to add enhancements and get the guards,” he said. “Compensation plays a factor, but not a major factor. The change is we have a different generation today. They don’t want to work 50, 60 hours a week … It’s a constant challenge but we will get to where we need to be.”

Council Secretary Tony DeLuca said the council could make wage adjustments during the budget process. Council President Matt James asked if it was something the town’s human resources department could explore.

“To be honest with you, I’m pretty shocked to hear this now,” City Manager Terry McGean replied. “I’m a little disappointed. We will look into this and get back to you with a recommendation if we believe one is warranted.”

Representatives with the town’s career fire and EMS division also came before the Mayor and Council this week with a spending plan that includes funding for eight additional full-time firefighter-EMS providers. Officials also propose funding another four positions using a new Medicaid reimbursement program.

“I think these 12 people will have a significant impact on our operations, as well as other things associated with 36-hour shifts,” said Ocean City Fire Department Chief Richie Bowers.

He noted the department struggled to recruit and maintain part-time staff. He said that has led to additional overtime for career personnel.

“That really impacts our day-to-day operations,” he said.

McGean told the council the town’s proposed budget only included eight positions, though officials expect to receive an additional $428,000 through Medicaid reimbursements.

“What we would ask is to move forward and hire those eight now,” he said. “The additional four would be funded through Medicaid reimbursement – it’s a new program – pending state approval.”

McGean noted the addition of four full-time positions in the current year’s budget had led to cost savings. He said an additional 12 positions in fiscal year 2024 would improve service.

“What the 12 additional full-time allows us to do is, in addition to how we deploy the personnel we have, is essentially to give us two full additional units,” he explained. “You will have four, two-person ambulance crews, one at each station, and then two three-person engine crews, one at headquarters and one at Station 4 until we move to the new station.”

DeLuca said he supported the 12 full-time positions and suggested the council amend the proposed budget to include 12 positions instead of eight. McGean, however, said he wanted to suggest alternative funding sources for the additional four positions, should the town not receive the Medicaid reimbursement.

“I think we’re going to be able to get to 12,” he said. “It’s an additional $300,000 to do that. We’re 95% sure we’re going to get this Medicaid reimbursement, but I don’t like counting my chickens before they hatch.”

Officials noted that hiring full-time personnel would reduce overtime and part-time costs. Councilman John Gehrig pointed out that hiring full-time employees would cost the town $460,000 and result in savings of $170,000.

“I’m not saying if we spend $640,000, we should save $640,000,” he said. “I’m just surprised that we spend $640,000 and save $170,000.”

Bowers said the addition of full-time personnel was not only about cost savings.

“One of the variables to figure in is the fact that our part-timers do not give us availability on the weekends, which costs us holdovers and overtime,” he said. “That’s hard to calculate … Those are some of the variables that challenge us. We know full-time staff are coming in on the weekend. We control their schedule.”

Councilman Will Savage agreed.

“We have to recognize it’s not sustainable the way these guys have been operating,” he said.

Gehrig questioned if the fire department supported the town’s special events.

“We’re going to have to pay for this somehow,” he said. “That means bringing more people into town … You’re good with that, right? We won’t hear about the strain it’s putting on the department?”

Bowers said his department would be able to support special events with additional full-time staff.

“Secondly, volunteer personnel also help with staffing. That helps us tremendously …,” he added. “Both career and volunteers have and will continue to step up in the special events arena.”

Officials this week also heard presentations from the fire marshal’s office, Ocean City Police Department and the volunteer fire company. Budget work sessions continued throughout the week.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.