Get-it-done attitude seen on fire services effort

Two years ago, county leaders wouldn’t even discuss the subject of payment for fire and ambulance service dispatched from Salisbury into Wicomico County.

Today, officials in both the city and county are scrambling to build financing formulas that will ensure the city is compensated when county residents receive city services.

“This issue has to get resolved,” Council President John Cannon declared in a Dec. 13 council work session.

“We’re compelled to have this resolved before the next budget cycle,” said County Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg.

Some 20 months has elapsed since then-Mayor Jim Ireton, frustrated with the county’s six-year refusal to engage the issue, threw down a mayoral gauntlet and said city fire trucks and ambulances would no longer cross over city borders, except in the most dire emergencies.

Salisbury officials had prepared a report which showed the county would have to give the city about $2.2 million annually as service compensation.

Though somewhat alarmed by the mayor’s action, county officials questioned the math, but agreed to participate in a task force discussion. That group concluded a third-party consultant should review the data and issues; the city and county agreed to split a $30,000 study.

Unfortunately, the consultant’s study did little to solve the problem. The contractor, TriData of Arlington, Va., said the data wasn’t available to answer all of the necessary questions. Said Cannon: “Some parts of the report landed like a lead balloon.”

In a November meeting, County Council members grilled consultant Dr. Harold Cohen, airing their frustration with the report’s open-ended conclusions. Cohen said the data needed to make decisions as certain as the county wanted were neither available from the city or the rural fire companies throughout the county.

As it has for years, the county annually pays $125,000 each to all volunteer fire companies, as well as $125,000 to each of the city’s three stations, for a city total of $375,000. For ambulance services, each fire company is also granted $152,000.

The agreement stipulating all that expired in 2009. There are 14 fire companies and nine ambulance companies in Wicomico County.

The city calculates that it answers 63 percent of the total fire calls and 67 percent of all EMS calls that occur within the county borders.

Cohen’s report said the city answered 3,631 emergency medical services calls and 1,330 fire calls outside city limits in 2015.

Cohen calculated the county underpays the city about $1.1 million a year for calls its fire department answers in unincorporated areas. TriData’s report also cited a $193 cost gap per ambulance trip and $289 gap per fire call.

Strausburg said he needed to review matters more thoroughly before making a presentation to the council prior to budget season, which begins in February. He will be seeking to determine:

  • Detailed information about calls.
  • A review of the city Fire Department’s expenses.
  • The sources of calls (such as road accidents, routine illness cases, emergencies).
  • A rationale for determining standardized costs.

“I don’t want the city to come up short and I don’t want the county to come up short,” said County Executive Bob Culver. “We’ll make sure everybody’s covered.”

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

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