Mayor Jim Ireton will take advantage of an internal funding dilemma within the city’s Fire Department to push a resolution to the city’s longtime lack of a fire services agreement with Wicomico County.
On the day before County Executive Bob Culver was sworn into office, Ireton sought to link the city’s loss of the Salisbury SAFER Grant firefighters to the ongoing debate about who should pay for fire services countywide.
City officials made staffing adjustments following last week’s expiration of a federal grant that helped pay for 12 additional firefighters. This grant was never meant to hire firefighters for permanent position status.
“Last week we activated two frozen positions in our fire service, we have hired to permanent status 11 SAFER Grant officers,” Ireton said, “and we extended the life of the grant for six weeks to keep our grant officers longer.
“We are applying for the SAFER grant again in the hopes of being granted an award in 2015,” he said.
But Ireton said the issue is bigger than just Salisbury’s grant status.
“The fair and equitable response to extending SAFER Grant officers into permanent status is for our fire leadership, including myself, the Salisbury City Council, our three volunteer fire companies, our local IAFF union, and the public to call on Wicomico County leaders to fix this tax burden inequity in 2015,” he said.
The Salisbury Fire Department responds to about two-thirds of the 16,000 fire and medical calls in Wicomico County each year, but it receives just 20 percent of the county’s fire spending.
The city has long wanted more money, but the cash-strapped county — including other fire companies outside the city — has resisted tackling the issue on the premise that residents everywhere are receiving adequate service.
Said Ireton: “Firefighters can’t have city taxpayers pay for 60 percent of the county and then demand more members for city taxpayers to pay for.”
Salisbury’s City Council discussed the SAFER Grant situation during a work session Monday. Ireton asked the council to additionally consider the county angle in any debates.
The Salisbury Fire Department now services 56.58 percent of Wicomico County which is outside city limits by responding to 63 percent of all fire calls, and 67 percent of all EMS calls which originate in the county.
According to Ireton, that amounts to $2.2 million in cost that is not paid back to the city.
Former county executive Rick Pollitt’s position was that mediation was the best solution. Power changed hands Tuesday, so it will be up to Culver to stake a position.
Ireton said the city will formally request that Wicomico address the disparity on Friday, Jan. 2, the first working day of the New Year.
On the mayor’s list to the county:
- A new Fire Service Agreement that pays Salisbury to the full extent of what service is provided to Wicomico County residents.
- No movement of funds from other city departments to pay for extending the SAFER Grant officers.
- No use of surplus funds to pay to extend the SAFER Grant. Ireton maintains that city taxpayers have already paid for a service for the county which is not being paid back; asking them to pay again is hitting taxpayers unfairly.
On Wednesday, after a week of uncertainty, Ireton took action by sending a budget amendment to the City Council to fund four additional full-time Firefighter/EMT positions at a cost of $160,610.
Two of the new positions will staff Engine 16 at SFD Headquarters, one will staff Truck 1 at Station 1, and one will staff Truck 2 at Station 2.
“Presently the Salisbury Fire Department is fully staffed on each fire truck at 5 firefighters on board,” Ireton said. “This budget amendment for four firefighters is dedicated to keeping four firefighters on each fire apparatus when sickness or vacation time has them understaffed.”
The budget amendment pays the officers through the end of FY2015. Chief Rick Hoppes will then be tasked with including them in his FY2016 budget.
Also on Wednesday, the mayor said he had signed employee action forms hiring 10 of the 11 remaining SAFER Grant officers to part-time employment status in the city.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at email@example.com