Emergency services funds remain to be determined
By Greg Ellison
(April 15, 2021) Differing views on emergency services funding and nominal raises for staff were discussed during the Berlin Town Council FY22 budget work session Monday night.
Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood said the FY22 draft budget is balanced with revenue projection of $6.78 million.
“This draft budget before you this evening has been looked at from many different directions and by many different sets of eyes,” he said.
Fleetwood said the town’s general fund relies primarily on taxes and government revenues, rather than fees.
“The drivers of this general fund are the cost of doing business, inflation and capital costs,” he said.
Finance Director Natalie Saleh said current FY22 revenue projections of $6,783,752 represent an increase of $511,528 or roughly 8 percent over revenue totals of $6,272,2224 for FY21.
Mayor Zack Tyndall and council members reviewed the departmental budget numbers for elected officials, administration, finance, customer accounts, buildings and grounds, police, public works, water, sanitation, streets, economic development, planning, parks and recreation and debt service.
On March 22, the council voted 4-1, with member Troy Purnell opposed, to set property tax rates at 81.5 cents per $100 of assessed value for FY22.
Saleh said the new tax rate is projected to raise $3,780,561, an increase of roughly $200,000 over the $3,580,107 collected at the current rate of 80 cents.
Fleetwood said the fiscal-balancing act required the elimination of some capital expenditures contained in the budget’s first draft. These included replacing public works trucks, street improvement projects, town hall renovations, audio/visual equipment, staff training, recycling and travel expenses.
Capital purchases retained in the FY22 draft budget are two new police vehicles for $80,000 and $255,000 to acquire a new street sweeper.
Berlin Fire Company President David Fitzgerald, while noting that 43 percent of the company’s responses are within town limits, said roughly $385,000 in added funding would be required for FY22 to meet proposed emergency services staffing levels in Worcester County.
“This proposed funding would staff two career paramedics and two EMTs 24 hours a day,” he said.
Fitzgerald said all 10 Worcester Fire Departments are coordinating efforts to assure adequate staffing is available at all times.
“We all help each other out,” he said. “When one company is not available, the other company covers.”
Berlin’s staffing levels would match Snow Hill, Pocomoke and Ocean Pines, with Newark, Showell and Bishopville requiring one crew, while Ocean City would need five crews.
Berlin Fire Company officials are working with other Worcester emergency responders to create a strategic plan for staffing.
Fitzgerald said Berlin elected officials, as well as other municipalities, could expect discussions with the Worcester Commissioners regarding cost-sharing for the staffing initiative.
At present, Berlin Fire schedules three staff per shift, including two paramedics and one EMT. This allotment permits an initial ambulance response with 60 seconds.
“The second paramedic is there if an additional emergency happens, but they would have to wait for a volunteer,” he said.
Fitzgerald said if pulling in a volunteer takes more than three minutes, the response call would route to another company.
“Four people provides very robust service to the community,” he said.
The proposal, which would increase Berlin Fire Company’s full time staff members from a dozen to 16, would assure two ambulances are available to respond at all times and provide additional backup at fire scenes.
Although not yet assured, Fitzgerald said the fire company is currently working with the Bank of Ocean City to apply for the second round of SBA Paycheck Protection Program funding.
“The first time we were told we were not eligible,” he said. “This round they’re telling us we’re eligible and we should be signing papers on Friday.”
Councilmember Purnell made one request based on the large funding increase sought.
“There’s no question the fire company provides an extremely valuable service to the town and surrounding area,” he said.
Purnell said to get an accurate financial picture the fire company, should provide its latest tax returns and profit and loss statement.
“I think we’re obligated to have the information to make an educated decision,” he said.
Fitzgerald agreed and said a full audit of the fire company ledgers would be available later this week.
Countering the request was Saleh, who suggested trimming back the $400,000 earmarked from county grant funds for the fire company in FY21.
“We do receive a $465,000 unrestricted grant, which should be supporting the general fund and any capital projects,” she said.
Noting that multiple funding opportunities exist for emergency responders, along with potential PPP money, Saleh recommended a larger share of the unrestricted county grant be used for other town operating costs.
Berlin has also asked the county to bump up its FY22 grant from $465,000 to $517,000.
In a plea later echoed by multiple council members, Fleetwood recommended a nominal increase to employees base salaries.
“We have a dedicated group of employees that all have the best interests of the town when they come to work on a daily basis,” he said.
Fleetwood said the Social Security Administration’s COLA adjustment for 2020 was 1.7 percent.
“If we do not do something for the employee group, I firmly believe … that we’re taking a step backwards,” he said.
Tyndall countered that any consideration for wage increases should be balanced against the effects on utility funds.
“If you do make a decision in the general fund, I would ask whatever the council decides to hold true across all funds,” he said. “Which would mean rate increases … or elimination of what little capital we’re actually able to invest in.”
An additional work session is scheduled for April 26, after which Berlin’s FY22 general fund budget will be introduced by ordinance on May 10.