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OC City Council

Despite approval to bolster offseason crew numbers, Chief Bowers questioned

(Oct. 4, 2019) Despite unanimously approving funding for additional fire department staffing, members of Ocean City Council on Tuesday voiced concerns over the frequency of funding requests.

Additionally, the council addressed long-held concerns over Worcester County’s contribution to funding fire and EMS services in West Ocean City.

“All of us are committed to public safety,” Councilman John Gehrig said. “The question is — this is more than a report, you’re asking for money, the money is unbudgeted, and I’m wondering why it’s not budgeted, and why you guys are back asking for more money when we knew this was a problem?”

Fire Chief Richie Bowers explained that during the offseason, Oct. 1 to April 30, call volumes in Ocean City and in West Ocean City increased by 20 and 13 percent respectively, from 2014 to 2018.

In addition, from 2016 to 2018, there was a net gain of 462 residential units, 185 business licenses and an overall increase in hotels that remained open year-round.

While call volumes and area coverage have increased over the years, staffing during the offseason has decreased, Bowers said. This causes safety issues, as it leads to increased call response time.

Bowers requested $159,385, which would be derived from a $60,000 Safe Station grant and a roughly $125,000 county grant toward EMS response, to add an additional two-person crew.

In addition, City Manager Doug Miller advised Gehrig that the current single-response model had been suggested in February, several months before Bowers was hired.

Nonetheless, Gehrig still found issue with the request, as Bowers had requested $300,000 in September to replace engine motors.

“I look at this as a salary cap,” he said. “When you ask for it [funding] in all these different ways, it’s not our decision, it’s your decision on how you use your cap. So we have the engines, we have the union contracts, we have all of these conversations that involve dollar bills, and we have to sit up here and spend them.”

Gehrig asked Bowers if he would be making more unbudgeted requests in the near future.

“Yes, I have to prioritize through our strategic planning, which we just did ... where we need to go,” Bowers said. “I don’t want to say there will be, but there could be.”

Gehrig said he understood and agreed with Bowers concerns, but would prefer a mini-budget session in order to pinpoint the fire department’s needs, and budget it properly.

Councilman Tony DeLuca, Councilman Dennis Dare and Meehan agreed with Gehrig.

The funding was approved because it was drawn from grant money, and not from the general fund budget.

Gehrig reiterated, however, that future funding requests should be consolidated and reviewed for the FY2021 budget.

DeLuca shifted gears and asked whether Worcester County was contributing money to help cover the costs of providing fire/EMS services in West Ocean City, which is under county jurisdiction, not Ocean City.

Budget Manager Jennie Knapp said Worcester County reimburses Ocean City $760 per call, but said it did not cover the cost completely.

Dare put the issue into context by pointing to the fire and EMS budget. He said the budget is roughly $8.3 million dollars, while ambulance fees collected by the city amount to $1.1 million.

The Worcester County grant is around $1.2 million, but 60 percent of that comes from Ocean City taxpayers, so essentially the city has been paying itself $720,000.

In any case, Dare said there was a $6 million dollar deficit that taxpayers were paying for, and 17 percent of those costs go toward West Ocean City.

Seventeen percent of $6 million is $1,020,000, so essentially residents of West Ocean City were using $1 million worth of Ocean City services for free, Dare said.

Meehan said the council sent a letter to the county in years previous to address this issue, but received no response.

“I would like us to calculate what the cost of providing services to West Ocean City, over and above what we are getting back, [is] and send them a bill,” Meehan said.

Councilman Matt James moved to send the bill, which Knight seconded.

However, Dare and Gehrig protested.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” Dare said.

“Let them figure it out,” Meehan retorted. “You keep bringing it up, let’s send them a bill.”

Gehrig said while he supported the idea in general, he felt it would be antagonizing and preferred creating dialogue with commissioners instead.

“We sent a letter asking last year, and didn’t get anything back,” James said.

The council passed the motion 6 to 1, with Gehrig voting in opposition.

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