Progress reported in Fire Services discussions

While agreeing that “one meeting does not a deal make,” city and county officials reported excellent progress in their effort to forge a new Fire Services Agreement between the two entities.

Fire Chief Rick Hoppes and Assistant City Administrator Julia Glanz met with County Executive Bob Culver, County Council President John Cannon, Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg and other high-ranking county officials last week. City Council President Jake Day was supposed to attend in a city leadership role, but couldn’t be there because his Army Reserves unit was deployed in Baltimore.

“I’ve been working on this for seven or eight years, and it was absolutely the most productive meeting we’ve had to date,” Hoppes reported to the City Council on Monday.

For more than a decade, the issue of fire services and how they’re paid for has been a back-burner issue for the county, but a front-burner issue for Salisbury. Mayor Jim Ireton turned up the heat when a new county administration and council was seated, demanding the city be fairly compensated.

Ireton maintains that Salisbury spends about $2.2 million in fire service costs for county residents, but the county residents don’t reimburse the city.

Data from the County G.I.S. and 911 Computer Aided Dispatch System shows the city responds to 62.95 percent of the fire calls in Wicomico County, yet the Salisbury received just 23.87 percent of the county’s total funding for fire and EMS in FY2014.

The headline-grabbing move promoted by the mayor involves what he has termed “the nuclear option.”

To push county officials into addressing the fire services financing conundrum, the mayor announced city firetrucks and ambulances won’t leave the city limits effective July 1. County residents will have to rely on service from other volunteer-based local fire companies.

After last week’s meeting, the mayor agreed to take the services-shutdown threat off the negotiating table. The mayor did, however, say he would renew the threat if progress didn’t continue.

Ireton’s decision, surprisingly, was actually announced by Culver.

The mayor “personally telephoned the Office of the County Executive to relay two urgent messages for the immediate attention of the County Executive, stating he wanted him to have first knowledge,” Culver said in a statement.

“One of the two messages was, ‘I am taking the nuclear option off the table as there seems to be a good faith effort to work together.’”

Culver, as he has before, blasted the mayor’s emergency services nonresponse threat, calling it “not acceptable to the welfare of the citizens of Wicomico County.”

Added Culver: “I cannot in good conscious allow such a threat to public safety to stand. I am committed to continue earnest discussions with regard to a new Fire Service Agreement, however, I will not do so under a threat of cessation of services by the city’s mayor.

At this week’s City Council meeting, members discussed their viewpoints on the “nuclear option,” and it quickly became clear that the council is unanimously opposed. Day said the council would write an official group letter declaring their position.

Hoppes reported that those attending last week’s negotiating session had agreed on three major points that will guide talks. Any ultimate solution, the chief said, must be: equitable, affordable and sustainable.

Hoppes also said the sides had agreed that an independent agency will be brought in to perform a financial evaluation of current and future funding options.

Also to be discussed, he said, will be geography-coverage issues and a timeline for agreement implementation.

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