By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(April 12, 2018) The Town of Berlin on Tuesday released the full text of a 90-page study on the Berlin Fire Company, which was performed independently by the Matrix Consulting Group and designed to help inform future funding requests to the town.
Despite the report, both sides are already questioning some of the results. The fire company on Tuesday posted a public response that champions some of the findings, but questions some of the data, while Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said there was at least one instance where statistics were obviously skewed.
The town commissioned the study last year and Matrix, based in San Francisco with offices in several states, began work in December.
According to a summary page in the report, “The focus of this study is a review of the funding and operations of the Berlin Fire Company and its operational needs. As a result, the scope of this project was comprehensive and included: Operational and Capital needs for services provided to the Town along with a funding schedule; Capital Needs; Financial Management; Operations Management; Proportional sharing of BFC Fire and EMS expenses between the Town and County; Related Community Concerns.
“This assessment is intended to determine the needs of the Berlin Fire Company to ensure they can provide effective and efficient services to the Town and remain financially viable.”
The town posted the full text online on Tuesday, viewable at berlinmd.gov/berlin-fire-company-report-released.
Fire Company President David Fitzgerald said he received the study on Monday and reviewed it that evening “page by page, line by line” during a meeting with fire personnel.
He said two items particularly stood out.
“The study does confirm what we’ve been saying for many years: the majority of the calls of the Berlin Fire Company are in town limits,” Fitzgerald said on Tuesday. “You’ll see the percentages in there. Those are accurate and we explain that every year to the town.
“And the other thing it clear states … they have it in several times in the report that the Berlin Fire Company is not sufficiently funded for the level of services we provide,” he continued. “We saw those two things that we appreciate them backing our position that we’ve said over the years.”
Fitzgerald added there were several notable errors in the report.
“As you interview people or you reply to emails … the first go-round, you may misinterpret something,” he said. “We’ve made the town and Matrix aware of those for clarification, like the organizational chart is not correct [and] there’s some other data there in regards to response data and our billing data that’s not correct.
“We talked to Mayor [Gee] Williams and he agrees wholeheartedly that the report needs to be accurate as far as the data, and he’s given us direction to provide that to Matrix for them to provide the necessary edits, once they validate that we’re telling them the data.”
He said some of the errors “jump right out at you.”
“We saw a couple things that need to be corrected and we appreciate Mayor Williams giving us the direction on how that needs to be corrected,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s just the data – we’re not taking about … recommendations of the consultant. All of that will have to be further reviewed.”
The fire company posted an official statement about the report on its website, www.berlinfire.com, on Tuesday.
Williams, also reached for comment on Tuesday, said the report “was not about the ability or professionalism of firefighting or EMS services, but has everything to do with the way that the funding from the town is appropriately allocated for those two functions in proportion to the service that’s provided to town residents and property owners.
“That, to me, is the bottom line of all bottom lines,” Williams said.
He said there were six items in the report the fire company needs to address: billing collection for EMS services, the authority of fire company officers and board members, the budgeting process “and lack of controls,” the cash basis of operations, and the continued use of fire sirens.
“The sixth item … is the physical facilities and their uses and upgrades, and particularly, from our point of view, the station one, which is the Main Street Station,” Williams said. “[The study] made some very clear recommendations on how needs can be met by renovating that station.”
The fire company has for several years planned and raised money for a new fire station.
“Obviously, we will be talking with representatives from the fire company,” Williams said. “I anticipate that some things will be fairly simple to resolve and other things will take some time.”
He added it is not reasonable to address all of the items in time for the next fiscal year budget, scheduled for adoption in May.
“My hope is, and I’m confident it’s the hope of the entire mayor and council, that we can get most of these issues resolved by the time we approve the 2020 fiscal year budget – that’s a year from now,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can resolve a majority of these issues and work out something that’s mutually beneficial to both parties.”
Williams did take issue with one item in the study, a workload breakdown that suggested total calls for service, from 2013-2017, were 54.4 percent (5,259) in the Town of Berlin and 45.6 percent (4,405) elsewhere in Worcester County.
According to the chart, 42.2 percent (763) of fire calls were in town limits and 57.8 percent (1,043) were not, while 57.2 percent (4,496) of EMS calls were in town limits and 42.8 percent (3,362) were not.
However, the study concludes, “The volume of calls to the hospital were overriding calls in the other parts of the district.”
“When you go through the report, you notice that most of the calls are in the immediate vicinity of Atlantic General Hospital – overwhelmingly,” Williams said. “The reason for that is … because of calls to Berlin EMS service to the nursing home to transport them a few hundred feet away to AGH. That skews everything.
“They’re getting a reimbursement from the county for that, but I think that’s something we’re going to have to look into in depth,” he continued. “What the town is going to be interested in what are the services to everyone else, separately, in the town and what are the number of calls to the nursing home. And then we can consider that in whatever adjusting of funding needs to come over time.”