By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Feb. 7, 2019) Berlin Mayor Gee Williams on Monday said he was pleased with the Jan. 21 Berlin Fire Company quarterly presentation, and that working to satisfy last year’s fire and EMS funding agreement was part of a process with some necessary growing pains.
On the first quarterly presentation, now mandated by a fire and EMS funding agreement signed last October, Williams said he “thought it was coming along nicely.”
“I didn’t have any criticisms at all about the way the information was provided and represented,” he said. “It’s much more detailed than what we used to get for the annual budget request, so I definitely think it’s good and, over time, as we learn about each other’s needs, we’ll only get a few more details.
“Every now and then there may be an issue that you wouldn’t see at six months or whenever, and it gives them an opportunity to talk to us about it instead of waiting until budget time,” he added.
Along with delivering quarterly presentations in January, April, July and October, the $605,000 funding contract requires the fire company to meet several deadlines.
Currently, some of those are being met and some are not.
Williams said the fire company is in the process of an annual audit that, according to the agreement, had to be scheduled before Nov. 12, 2018.
“The information is being transferred from their accountant to PKS and Associates … who does our audit,” he said. “That information has been primarily received during January of this year, so I know that that is in the works.”
He said no progress has been made on delivering a five-year financial plan, which was due Dec. 31, 2018.
“Quite frankly, I think that’s going to be one that probably [will be] more complicated and harder than we first anticipated, but I still expect it will be done, hopefully, late winter or early spring,” Williams said.
Because the Berlin Fire Company service area extends outside of town limits, certain equipment must be stationed in certain places, Williams said. That somewhat complicates matters.
“Where is the money coming for that equipment? Is the county making a contribution toward that equipment? Is the town responsible for which equipment and how much? If we were the only funding source, it would be obvious, but we’re not,” Williams said. “I don’t think there’s any standard operating procedure when it comes to capital expenses in this county and with the various fire departments – that’s why it’s complicated.”
He said there also has not been much movement on the Dec. 31, 2019 deadline to negotiate a fiscal 2020 agreement for EMS services.
“That’s one of those things where it’s like putting together a puzzle,” Williams said. “Some pieces fit pretty quickly and, with others, we haven’t quite figured all that out yet.”
Also complex is the issue of meeting the Dec. 31, 2018 deadline to “work towards a permanent solution to the current use of sirens.” Compounding that, Williams said, is the equally complex issue of the county’s emergency radio systems.
“There are issues with the emergency communications system – and it’s not just one issue, it’s a variety of things,” Williams said. “I think we’re all hopeful that the new [county] director will be able to facilitate something that works better than what we all have had to contend with for a while … as soon as that can be worked out with Worcester County, overall.
“That’s the big hurdle,” Williams continued. “We know they’re all working on it, and we just ask them to keep us informed with what’s being accomplished and what’s not.”
On the subject of meeting deadlines in general, Williams offered, “I think everyone is trying to meet them but, at the same time, since we’re going through this for the first year, we’re more interested in trying to get it right than to get it on a specific day.”
“Hopefully, over time, we will be able to refine some of these dates,” he added.
Several other items in the agreement were not specifically dated, including a requirement for the “Berlin Fire Company Emergency Medical Services” to form a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Williams said it was his understanding at least some paperwork had been filed to do so.
Also in the contract, the fire company acknowledges the Station 1 headquarters on Main Street “needs to be renovated to house BFC offices and appropriate living quarters for Fire/EMS career personnel.”
The issue came up during the quarterly report, when Fire Company President David Fitzgerald indicated the company could instead make use of the former library building adjacent to Station 1.
Williams and Councilman Thom Gulyas publicly said that was unwise, instead suggesting the fire company rent out the old library building to create a reliable source of revenue.
“In the mayor and council’s opinion, they have a lot of very under utilized space on the second floor [of Station 1],” Williams said. “That’s one of the biggest spaces in the Town of Berlin and, certainly, I cannot imagine the mayor and council being supportive of them moving offices to the library building, which has such potential for sustainable income for the benefit of the fire company.”
He added the suggestion by Fitzgerald that an upstairs living space could slow fire and EMS response times was somewhat peculiar.
“The idea that firemen and EMS personnel would not be able to do a good job just because they have to come from the second floor to the first floor – I know that we’re in a very high-tech era, but people can still go up and down steps,” Williams said. “And it’s been that way since the beginning of fire companies.
“I just don’t think that’s an objection that’s going to hold much water with the mayor and council, and I hope they go back to the drawing board,” he continued. “It would be folly to do what they were talking about the other night.”
Overall, Williams said he’s satisfied with town and fire company relations following signing of the agreement last year.
“It’s coming along,” he said. “Is it a piece of cake? No. Are there still bumps in the road? Yes. And I think that my expectation is that each quarter of the year we will get more and more in alignment and more accomplishments behind us. I don’t think it’s done in one fell swoop.
“Our ultimate goal here is to have a partnership,” Williams continued. “If we’re going to be a major provider of funding for fire and EMS, then we want to make sure we’re all working off the same page.
“We don’t want to run the fire company. We don’t want to run the EMS. But, we need to make sure that those services are being provided to our town in a way that is supported by the community and can be justified to the community for the return on investment,” he said.
Fitzgerald did not respond to requests for comment on this story.