City, county begin talks on fire services funding

 

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After two weeks of conflict and confusion, Mayor Jim Ireton has assigned a city team to begin discussions with the county over a fire services agreement.

The mayor has declared that if the city is not properly compensated for responding to fire calls and emergencies outside the city limits, he will order city personnel and equipment not to leave the city limits effective July 1.

According to the mayor, accounting shows that when measuring the revenues the county currently provides, there’s a $2.2 million discrepancy that must be stopped.

City Council President Jacob Day, Fire Chief Richard Hoppes and newly hired Assistant City Administrator Julia Glanz held a first meeting with county officials on Tuesday. The session was not open to the public.

“It is important to know that Salisbury has been seeking an equitable fire service agreement for 10 years,” Ireton said. “That is approximately $14 million in free services provided by Salisbury taxpayers.

“We can negotiate boundaries for the fire district, but we cannot afford to give away any more money or provide more service,” he said.

In sending people in his place to discuss the quandary, Ireton recognized he and County Executive Bob Culver might have a difficult time at the same table, given the mayor’s aggressive stance on the matter.

“My trust in Mr. Day, Chief Hoppes, and Ms. Glanz is absolute,” the mayor said.

In a letter to the mayor last week, Culver revealed that the proceeds the city collects from county residents’ insurance companies might factor in the financial deliberations. According to a calculation from city documents, one-third of all such receipts ─ or about $275,000 ─ comes from county residents’ insurance companies.

Ireton has hammered basic numbers in making his case, saying the city:

  •         Responds to 62.95 percent of the total fire calls in the county.
  •         Responds to 66.71 percent of all EMS calls in the county.
  •         Serves 56.58 percent of the county population.
  •         Serves 58.38 percent of the county’s assessed valuation.
  •         Received just 23.87 percent of the county’s total funding for fire and EMS in FY14.

In the letter, Culver addressed questions about the amount of time volunteers spend working across the jurisdictions, and sought information about what volunteer companies do with their county grants.

“We have gotten a multitude of questions and we have provided the requested documentation and information, almost instantly,” Ireton said.

“My job was to get the county to the table; (Council President Day’s) job is to change the way we do business in providing fire/EMS service.”

One potential solution the mayor listed is to enact an Assessable Base Model to finance fire services and draft an Equitable Compensation Plan that will be fair to the city.

At a public roundtable meeting last week, Chief Hoppes said one option was for the city to establish a call-based system, in which each call for service would be billed at a little more than $600 an hour for ambulance services and nearly $750 an hour for fire services.

Hoppes also detailed the mayor’s Assessable Base Formula, which he said would create a new tax for all county residents at $0.15 per $100 of assessed property value. That would generate about $10.5 million to be dispersed among Wicomico County’s 14 fire companies and departments.

 

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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