Mayor, fire chief: resort responses also harmed
(Feb. 7, 2020) One thing Worcester County and the Town of Ocean City can agree on is that the lack of funding for emergency services to West Ocean City is a problem. The bigger problem, however, is deciding who will pay for it and how.
Resort Mayor Rick Meehan and Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers told the county commissioners Tuesday that the funding issue is more than a financial concern, it’s dangerous.
“We’ve reached a point where we’re in a critical situation in Ocean City where we don’t have units available to service residents of Ocean City at all times because we’re out of units,” Meehan said.
He explained that more and more firefighters are full-time and paid, rather than volunteers, which has contributed to the calendar year 2018 deficit of $395,089 absorbed by Ocean City taxpayers for emergency services to West Ocean City.
In that same year, 828 calls for emergency services from the Ocean City Fire Department came from West Ocean City. That’s 13.35 percent of the department’s total medical responses, resort officials said.
The other divide, they added, is the $453,720 the county government provides for that service as compared to the $1 million it costs the resort to handle West Ocean City emergencies.
“When you provide a service, you have to be paid for providing the service,” Meehan said. “The taxpayers of Ocean City can no longer subsidize half a million dollars a year to provide service outside of the municipality.”
In addition, Bowers said calls from West Ocean City are increasing, while the department’s availability is limited.
“Each time a unit goes to West Ocean City, it depletes the resources we have in place and funded for in the Town of Ocean City,” Bowers said. “The impact, the ugly part is, it increases our response times to other incidents in Ocean City and in addition to when a call in West Ocean City occurs.”
Meehan said adding Paramedic Unit 7 has helped the problem, but it isn’t enough. For now, Ocean City wants funding to keep Unit 7 functional, but mentioned that an additional shift of 18 additional full-time staff would increase the city’s budget by $1.6 million, including employee salary and benefits.
He suggested four options in a November letter to commissioners – to establish medical response districts in the county, to reimburse Ocean City for the costs of the West Ocean City station on a year-round basis, to directly pay the city for the deficit attributable to service to West Ocean City or to revise the grant amounts for the credit and non-credit runs outside of Ocean City corporate limits.
“As I stand here today, the most important question I need to ask is, do you want us to provide EMS service to the West Ocean City area?” Meehan said.
Without an answer, Meehan said Ocean City could not factor servicing West Ocean City into its budget. However, commissioners were unwilling to give an answer just yet.
County Commissioner Chip Bertino said the commissioners should look at the lack of emergency services as a countywide issue, not just for Ocean City, since it will affect the upcoming budget discussions.
“But what we’re here today is about one specific issue that addresses the Town of Ocean City, as we move forward to prepare our budget, which you require us to do before you prepare yours,” Meehan replied.
Bertino maintained that the county could not address Meehan’s question without having time to review and meet with the county fire chiefs.
“There are a number of issues that we’re dealing with that could impact our budget significantly,” Bertino said. “Kirwan (school funding) is one. This morning, we talked about another issue, a house bill that could affect us in millions of dollars if passed. So it’s not just what you’re dealing with.”
County Commissioner Jim Bunting said he supported looking further into creating emergency response districts.
“I can’t make a decision today, but there’s some good ideas here,” Bunting said.
County Commissioner Joseph Mitrecic, who represents Ocean City, encouraged his colleagues to keep the discussion going and reminded them that although this affects other areas in the county, and even Somerset County, Ocean City is the most affected because of its high volume of calls.
At the suggestion of Mitrecic, the commissioners voted to meet with the fire chiefs to begin addressing the problem. Mitrecic said that the commissioners would have a work session after that and have a more concrete answer for Meehan before Ocean City’s budget time.