Joe Mitrecic

Worcester County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic

(May 17, 2019) After opening a fiscal 2020 budget work session on Tuesday with less than half-million-dollar surplus from a roughly $202 million balance sheet, the Worcester County Commissioners nearly doubled that difference by cutting an additional $900,000 from departmental budget requests.

Responding to a request from the Sheriff’s Office for more than $400,000 to purchase 11 new vehicles, including a handful of 4x2 trucks and a half dozen 4x4 models, Commissioner Jim Bunting said previous policy had limited the total to five or less annually.

“I’m not going to vote for 11 vehicles for the sheriff’s department,” he said. “I think some of this money should go towards the fire company.”

Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said the capital equipment request could be financed with Local Impact Funds, which is drawn from casino revenues.

Higgins said the current pool of funds from casino revenues is roughly $526,000, the bulk of which could be dedicated for the sheriff’s trucks, with smaller allotments earmarked for Emergency Services, Worcester County Jail and the Fire Marshal’s Office.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic suggested the casino funds could be redirected.

“If we deny the vehicles, that’s $50,000 we could spend elsewhere,” he said.

Higgins said first responder vehicles are one of a limited means in which the impact grant funding could be directed.

“If you deny the vehicles, I think you deny the transfer in from the casino funds,” he said.

Bunting made an unanimously approved motion to trim the sheriff’s vehicle request total to five, including three 4x2 and two 4x4 trucks.

Kelly Shannahan, assistant chief administrative officer, reminded the commissioners the casino revenues are permitted to be used for a narrow scope of public safety expenditures.

“The local impact grants and the multi-year plan specifies impact from the casino in the general vicinity,” he said.

Cost savings were also found in an Emergency Services request for 77 radios for school buses, initially estimated at more than $338,000.

Bunting noted the board of education is filing a grant application for roughly $82,000 to finance the purchase of 25 radios and that the board could pursue that avenue in subsequent years to obtain the required radio count.

“I don’t think 77 radios need to be in there,” he said.

Bunting also questioned the cost per radio, with the recommended model costing $3,000 each, while proposing a less costly model for $1,450 would suffice for school bus applications.

“I don’t see why [we can’t] use nonpublic safety radios for buses,” he said.

Emergency Services Assistant Director James Hamilton explained the less costly models are suitable for non-emergency county workers, while the higher cost radios are appropriate for first responders with multiple channel and bandwidth capabilities.

The lower cost radio model is the same used in non-public safety vehicles in the county, which are handheld, Hamilton said.

“Anywhere we install a radio in a physical vehicle, that is the least expensive,” he said.

In answer to concerns raised about the application of handheld radios inside hectic school buses, Hamilton suggested a potential solution could involve installing a remote speaker microphone.

“It would probably add $250 cost for a speaker microphone and portable charger,” he said.

Budget Officer Kathy Whited said the estimated cost for the bus radios had already been reduced from $338,000 to about $245,000.

Whited estimated the price for the lower cost models, at $1,450 each or $1,700 to include a remote speaker set up, would be just under $130,000. Adding in another approximately $11,000 for radio base stations needed inside schools, the final figure would be about $141,000.

While moving to approve the purchase of lower cost radios, Bunting said if the school board gets its $82,000 grant, it could buy more radios because of the cost reductions.

Also pared down was a request for 50 public-safety radios, at a cost of $3,000 per unit, for fire and EMS responders.

Hamilton said the request is based on new pieces of large fire equipment being put into service and to forecast future needs.

Commissioner Chip Bertino suggested chopping the number in half. He said under-budgeted amounts could be revisited with an over-expenditure request if needed.

Bunting once again made an unanimously approved motion to reduce the Fire/EMS radio tally to 25 units for a cost of $75,000.

In response to a discussion regarding tweaks to the volunteer fire department budget, Mitrecic stressed the importance of addressing the increasing need for emergency responders in West Ocean City.

“We’re going to need a moratorium on building in West Ocean City,” he said. “Ocean City can no longer charge its taxpayers to run EMS and fire calls out in West Ocean City.”

Mitrecic said if budget requests from volunteer fire companies are not met, the members could opt out of providing public service, leaving a higher cost for the county to absorb.

“We’re going to end up paying for fire companies throughout the county and then God help us,” he said. “You think the board of education is expensive and the sheriff’s department, you wait until we start paying for fire protection and EMS throughout the county.”

After a morning closed session, followed by hours of discussion, Whited said expenditures were reduced by more than $827,000 during the budget work session with a second round scheduled for next Tuesday.

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