By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(June 7, 2018) Although progress might have been made, hard feelings apparently remain between the Town of Berlin and the Berlin Fire Company officials, judging from the exchanges between representatives of both Tuesday night.
At a meeting designed to help the public understand the fire company funding study released by Matrix Consulting Group in April, one town councilman walked out after the study and some council member comments were characterized in rough fashion as uninformed.
Robert Finn, a senior manager with Matrix and retired fire and police chief from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, opened the meeting with about 20 minutes of background on the study.
The audience was almost all public officials and fire company personnel, including Mayor Gee Williams and Councilmen Dean Burrell, Elroy Brittingham, Thom Gulyas and Zack Tyndall, as well as Fire Company President David Fitzgerald.
Finn said work on the study started in mid-December and the finished product included recommendations “that we think will enhance the relationship between the fire company and the town, and ensure that the service levels can continue and the fire company doesn’t run into any long-term funding issues.”
Between 2013 and 2017, Finn said, about 57 percent of calls were in town, while 43 percent were from elsewhere in Worcester County.
To pay for services, the town provides an annual payment of $400,000 and EMS billing adds about $350,000. Including county funding and private donations, fire company and EMS combined revenue is $1.92 million, while expenses were $1.785 million – and trending upward, Finn said.
“The expenses are rising at a faster rate than revenues are increasing, so, long term, that might be an issue,” Finn said. “One thing you don’t want is that your revenues and your operating expenses are so tight that there’s no opportunity to put aside funds for capital expenditures.”
Currently, Finn said, the fire company “puts aside and operates on a cash basis.”
“They save money, and when there’s enough money to buy a fire truck, they can buy a fire truck,” he said. “They don’t go into debt to purchase any of their capital assets. So, in terms of debt-to-earnings ratio, they’re pretty solid because they don’t carry any debt.”
Rather than the town giving the company a flat amount, Finn said it was important to develop a contract for services “so that the fire company were treated like any other department in the town.”
“Just like public works [or] the water department — they come in and present what they think they need for the next year in order to provide the operations,” Finn said. “It gives a mechanism for the town to have some control over how the monies are spent, and it also gives an opportunity for the fire company to come in if something has changed from year to year – and they need more funding or less funding – to be able to present why that’s the case to the town and be able to receive what they feel is appropriate funding for the next fiscal year.”
Overall, Finn said, fiscal controls were strong and the fire company was “doing a good job managing their money.”
Finn said the study called for using a customized EMS golf cart during downtown festivals, limiting responding vehicle use of Main Street, and converting the second floor of the Main Street fire station into an office space and living quarters.
He also said the downtown siren is a concern and recommended its use be transferred to the county for alerts during severe weather.
When the floor was opened to the public, resident Joe Shelton said he believes there’s an ongoing “peeing contest between the city and the fire department,” and compared it to a witch hunt.
Williams countered that town officials had never criticized the quality of fire or EMS services, although there were issues of “funding, accountability and transparency of finance.”
“It’s nobody’s fault, but this is an inherited system where the financial accountability is much more in tune with the 1950s – not the 21st century,” Williams said.
David Lewis from the Berlin Fire Company asked if a tax increase would be necessary to cover the apparent $600,000 gulf between current fire and EMS funding and the fire and EMS needs shown in the study?
“The study indicated to us that $1 million would be needed to fully fund EMS and fire,” Williams said. “For us to generate an additional $600,000 out of our budget, we would have increase the property tax rate by approximately 11 cents per [$100 of evaluation]. If that’s what ultimately has to be done, fine, but it has to be done together.
“If we work together, we’ll find solutions,” he continued. “We can get to a place where everyone benefits, and the public needs to know where that money is being used, how it’s being invested, what’s the operational expenses, what are the capital expenses, and how are these decisions being made. And I think those are reasonable questions for the public to ask.”
Tyndall estimated the increase would cost the owner of a $200,000 home an additional $220 each year, or about $18 per month.
Marc Brown, a 33-year veteran of the Berlin Fire Company, said town funding totaled $567,000 in 2011.
“Eight years later, inflation has cost us and now we’re at $400,000,” he said. “That’s just something to put in the back of your mind.”
Brown said in more than three decades there has never been a year when the fire company did not present a budget request “and go line by line and answer every question [the Town Council] wanted to hear.”
“We always didn’t get what we wanted – sometimes they’d throw us a bone and we got a little more,” Brown said. “It’s always been a two-way street – until the last five or six years.”
He said membership has suffered greatly because of the funding decrease, with more than 50 people who were serving in 2010 no longer with the fire company.
“We are feeling the effects of not being supported financially by our town – our membership is feeling the pain. It will cost the citizens,” Brown said. “I hope it doesn’t, but I could see that happening.”
Brown compared the situation to hiring a contractor.
“If you brought a paving company in to pave the street … would you want to audit him and know how he’s running his business, or would you be satisfied with the service he’s providing?” he said.
Burrell called for unity and said the Town Council is asking the citizens to “work with us – us and the fire department – to ensure that our fire department is funded equitably.”
“If that takes a tax rate increase or whatever it takes to fund our fire department, we are ready to do that. But it has to come under the scrutiny of the public,” Burrell said.
“I’m going to ask this group to take your opinions, your expertise, and let’s bring them together – let’s bring them together to work toward a solution,” he continued. “I’m not talking about soundbites for the press or anything like that – I’m talking about genuinely working together. We can do this thing, I know we can.”
Tyndall added the council and fire company recently had productive meetings and “we’re all open to working with one another.”
However, J Bergey, fire company CPA, had issues with some of the evening’s comments.
“I’m sitting here listening to this shit … and you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
For instance, he said, it was untrue the fire company operated on a cash basis.
“You all keep saying ‘cash basis, cash basis.’ That’s the next thing that’s going to be in the newspaper,” Bergey said. “The financials are done on accrual basis – not cash basis.
“None of you know what you’re talking about – that’s the biggest part of it. You keep saying we move stuff around … that’s bullshit!” he added.
“You don’t have any financial expertise,” Bergey said. “You’ve got an auditor that’s telling you the fire company is underfunded …. You’ve got 57 percent of the services and you pay 27 percent of the bottom line.
“Dean hit it right on the head – there’s so many opinions and all that kind of bullshit going on – it’s just a lot of mumbo-jumbo smoke and mirrors,” he continued.
Williams sprung out of his seat when Bergey again claimed, “It’s all just bullshit.”
“No, it’s not! It is not! It is not!” Williams said.
Burrell also stood up.
“I just want to say one more thing,” Burrell said. “I talked about [us] having different ideas and different opinions, and I believe that is a good thing. But for this thing to work we’re going to have to try to understand each other,” he said. “I’m going to have to try to understand where you all are coming from, and you’re going to have to try to understand where we are coming from.
“And, to sit in a public meeting and say, ‘you don’t know shit’ – I don’t want to be in here, so I bid you good night,” Burrell said, leaving the room.
Following the meeting, on Wednesday morning, Bergey clarified what led to his frustration.
“Those guys were standing up there last night trying to piss in the community’s boots and tell them that it was raining. It’s so disingenuous to have someone stand up there that they have fed all this crazy shit, and this guy is a fireman – a professional fireman – and he’s trying to intertwine his good fire recommendations about response times and all that stuff, and reconcile it with a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit and no sirens – it’s so incongruent, it just pissed me off to no end.”
Bergey said the consultant lacked credibility, referring to cash-basis accounting when talking about replacement reserves.
“To somebody that doesn’t understand the financials – they’re talking about something and not even using the right terminology, so how could anybody have a good understanding of what even they were saying? That’s what frustrated me about it,” he said.
The real headline, Bergey said, was that the consultant comes from a fire company “that does the same amount of calls – around 1,400 fire and EMS calls per year” as the Berlin Fire Company, but with a three-times larger budget.
“Their budget for providing that service for their town and their community is $6 million,” Bergey said. “The Berlin Fire Company provides for their community three life-support ambulances 24/7 and a top-of-the-line fire service for $1.9 million – it’s three times as much for the same 1,400 calls per year.
“And that guy came from a service where they had no volunteers, and that’s what the town is trying to get rid of. They want to get rid of the volunteer service so they can take over whatever they think they can do,” he added.
He also balked at the consultant’s suggestions to lower the speed limits in town and do away with the fire siren, the latter of which is still necessary because the siren alerts firemen about five minutes before the outdated 911 systems can send phone or pager alerts, Bergey said.
“It’s really getting to be to a ridiculous point, and it’s pushed the volunteer fire company to where they cannot provide the service anymore,” Bergey said.
“The main point is that the consultant that was telling them to cut back on a $2 million budget for 1,400 calls was from a fire company that did the same 1,400 calls, and their budget was $6 million – that’s the real key to the whole thing,” he continued. “I didn’t want the newspapers and the people that were there that weren’t financially savvy … to understand that they were not using the right terminology, and whatever message they were trying to relay wasn’t financially sound and it didn’t make any sense.
“It’s just real frustrating that the Town Council sees fit to spend money and not support their own community members that are volunteering their time. It’s just really beyond me how they can do it,” Bergey said.