County, city fire talks continue; service to continue

As fire service negotiations continue between city and county officials, the community is safely covered by emergency response teams, thanks to the mayor suspending his so-called nuclear option.

If Mayor Jim Ireton had enforced that option — which refers to the nucleus of the city —  it would have meant fire trucks and emergency crews would have only responded within city limits and not go into the county after July 1, until an agreement with county officials was reached.

In a letter sent to County Executive Bob Culver on May 4, Ireton said he took the nuclear option “off the table” because there appeared to be a good faith effort to work together.”

Meeting to resolve the problem are Culver, along with the threesome Ireton appointed, City Council President Jake Day, Fire Chief Rick Hoppes and Assistant City Administrator Julia Glanz.

A meeting is scheduled for this week, with another on July 9, and additional gatherings every two weeks, according to Tanner Pizza, Culver’s executive assistant.

Meetings began following Ireton’s concerns based on facts including that the city responds to 63 percent of fire calls in the county and 67 percent of emergency medical calls. The city serves 57 percent of the county population, but only received 24 percent of county funding in fiscal year 2014.

That means the city provides $14 million in free services that Salisbury residents pay for through taxes, Ireton said, adding, “We cannot afford to give away any more money or provide more service.”

For 10 years, city officials have been striving for equity, he said. He called for an assessable base model, a five-year reduction plan and equitable compensation plan, worrying that city residents were being overtaxed. They have to pay taxes even when the fire department responds beyond city limits, he said.

In April, Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver wrote to the mayor, asking for details about fire department operations, costs and methods of funding. Ireton directed Hoppes to forward  the information to Culver. He appointed Day, Hoppes and Glanz to work on a resolution with county officials.

The two sides agreed to an audit that would remove the cost of the new fire department headquarters from the funding formula, because Culver said the county will not pay for the infrastructure.

Originally, Trice Geary & Myers LLC, a certified public accounting firm, was hired, but this week Day said Trice Geary is no longer involved.

Also this week, Chris Demone, who handles public relations for the city, said the city-county meetings, which are  closed to the press and public,  have been “convivial and in the spirit of wanting to work together.”

Likewise, Pizza quoted Culver as saying the meetings “are going well and both sides have been productive.”

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