Leaders at war over fire services future

As disagreement continues about a fire service area for the newly formed Station 13, Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver is standing firmly in favor, against a frustrated Mayor and County Council president.

Culver, who reportedly instructed the county’s Emergency Services Department to continue mapping out territory for Station 13 — generally the area near the Salisbury Bypass — has been essentially summoned to Tuesday’s County Council meeting to explain his actions.

“The council can’t understand why he’s taking the direction he is,” County Council President John Cannon told the Salisbury Independent.

Culver couldn’t be reached for comment.

Last month, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day and City Council members formally rejected forming a new fire service area and the County Council questioned the need. Last week, an email from Culver’s office sent by County Administrator Wayne Strausburg stated endorsement of the matter would be canceled.

Culver, though, insisted the email meant the request to put the matter on a particular County Council meeting agenda was being canceled.

Cannon called for proper criteria to be met.

“You have to recognize the county fire service agreement, which the county helped to write. (Attorney) Paul Wilbur helped come up with these maps. We want to know why he feels he can ignore the fire agreement,” Cannon said.

“Before beginning any new project, you want to explain to the taxpayer how this will be funded. He hasn’t told the county how Station 13 plans to serve that district.

“This is being proposed without any public input. There hasn’t been one public hearing. It definitely warrants a public hearing. This is all about the rights of the taxpayers. It certainly is the taxpayer who would be funding this,” Cannon said.

Culver has proposed putting $408,000 in the budget to fund Station 13, but Cannon said the County Council wants to know “why he feels that should be incumbent upon the taxpayers of Wicomico County.”

Day said new territory can’t be formed unless five entities agree – the mayor, Salisbury City Council, Culver, Wicomico County Council and the state Fire Chiefs Association.

Station 13 Chief Corey Polidore said Culver recently received a letter from the Fire Chiefs Association, unanimously rejecting the city’s fire service agreement, which doesn’t allow for Station 13.

“They will not accept the agreement for several reasons, all laid out in that letter. The legality of that agreement is coming into question … the Fire Chiefs don’t agree with the fire service agreement. They do not agree with how things are laid out, with the map. They are not accepting it,” Polidore said.

Day called the letter “meaningless.”

“They don’t have any authority to approve or not approve a contract they are not party to. Contract law doesn’t afford them that right, nor does the city, county or state law. But it was also a superfluous, inaccurate and dishonest letter. I’ve spoken with the chiefs of the four largest departments in the county representing more than 80 percent of the calls in the county and they didn’t vote to support the content of that letter,” Day said this week.

“If Jake would have met with us instead of doing things behind closed doors and personal favors then we would probably be beyond this right now,” Polidore said.

Day disagreed, saying, “The only meeting we ever had on this subject was televised. The fire service agreement was signed on live TV.”

This week, Delmar Mayor Karen Hughes Wells expressed her frustration with the ongoing battle, posting on Facebook and exchanging comments with dozens of people, including Day.

“The city and the county entered into an agreement, signed sealed and delivered and there was no area carved out for an additional station. Agreement can only be changed with the blessings of the city, the county and the County Fire Chief’s Association. Now, the county wants to change with no regard for said agreement? Am I correct on this?” Wells wrote.

“I’ve sat back and watched for far too long. I asked questions in the beginning, but was hopeful that the fire service agreement between the county and city would make this a non-issue. Unfortunately, it has not, because the county apparently doesn’t want to honor that agreement,” she wrote.

Day replied that the matter will soon be handed over to judges.

“They will fix the embarrassing political behavior of one man,” Day wrote, likely referring to Culver.

“I mean what in the world is he thinking?” Hughes wrote and Day responded, “I think he’s thinking that there has to be a political upside to this.”

“There’s no other explanation for threatening the lives and property of your constituents over their objection, pretending like a handful of people who couldn’t do their jobs ought to suddenly be trusted to do a job, breach a contract, violate unanimously adopted resolutions by city and county councils, counter the county’s adopted budget, and just act like an all-around fool in public.”

By “couldn’t do their job,” he was referring to complaints about volunteers not responding to emergencies quickly enough.

Day wrote the man in question, “walked away from negotiations three times, tore up or threw away two agreements in front of witnesses, and had his own lawyer and staff write the agreement, draw the maps and then say nothing for three months until one day he suddenly objects?”

“Why didn’t he write a different agreement? Draw a different map? Refuse to write an agreement? Refuse to sign an agreement? Why didn’t he ever ask the homeowners of his district? Or respond to their letters, e-mails and voicemails? I got copied on all of them. Think they’ll forget about this in 2018? I don’t.”

“Stunning that signed contracts and unanimously adopted resolutions by two councils suddenly aren’t enough. The courts will clarify,” Day wrote on Wells’ Facebook page.

Polidore, though, said Station 13 firefighters have a building on Snow Hill Road, raised about $15,000 selling chicken dinners and are planning to begin serving the community in mid-September.

Emphasis, he said, should be on protecting the community, not on what region Station 13 has.

“This isn’t necessarily territory, territory. This is wanting to improve public safety,” he said.

If Station 13 never materializes, its members will willingly support other fire departments, because they just want to help, Polidore said.

“We are more than happy to assist the city with mutual aid. But last week, (Salisbury Fire Chief) Rick Hoppes sent an email saying the city won’t accept mutual aid from us.

“Even if they needed the help, he would not accept it and that house could burn down or that person could die. That proves his purpose for not accepting any assistance from Station 13 is not for public safety,” Polidore said.

But Day said that email was “simply a response to an inquiry from Emergency Services staff saying they are ‘just following orders.’”

“He made it clear that he expected nothing to change and that the city is clear that no territory or mutual aid agreements will change,” Day told the Salisbury Independent.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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