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Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette Logo Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette


Fire Company still giving Berlin fits

(March 5, 2015) A major new housing proposal in Berlin has reopened old wounds between the Town Council and the Berlin Fire Company.
The Berlin mayor and council and the Worcester County Commissioners both gave preliminary support to the annexation of 90-plus acres on Seahawk Road and Route 50 so developer Rinnier Properties can build apartments on the parcel, beginning with a 144-unit complex this year.
Meanwhile, the Berlin Fire Company wrote a letter to the commissioners criticizing the town for not consulting them on the matter.
“Our concern is the continued development within the town and no planning for the fire company’s future,” Fire Company President David Fitzgerald said. “The town has made decisions over the last three years to cut the fire company’s budget over $1.2 million, but yet we’re going to get more property in town and not only is it going to be more property, it’s going to be developed property.
“Anybody with any bit of common sense would understand that those people are going to get sick, people are going to fall down, they’re going to need an ambulance, the fire alarms are going to go off – either by accident or by a real fire – and we’re going to be busier,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also worried about increased traffic in the area leading to an increase in accidents, and said several facilities and vehicles are in disrepair, notably Station Three near the annexation site.
“You can stand inside the building and look outside through the holes in the wall,” Fitzgerald said. “We never know what we’re getting from the town anymore, and at some point we’re going to run out of resources.”
“I don’t know what their thought process is,” Fitzgerald continued. “We provided all of the finance [records] to them. We had our finances independently audited. The town just elects to micromanage the fire company without listening to the fire company.”
Fitzgerald said he had no idea what caused the rift, and lamented that the fire company was not involved in any of the recent planning meetings or invited to participate in Town Council meetings.
“We’re not notified to attend,” he said. “The way we keep abreast of what’s going on is we monitor the newspapers, we monitor the minutes of the meetings, the agendas. We’ve not been involved in the planning process. We’ve not been invited to any meetings.”
In lieu of funding from the town, the fire company has taken to fundraising, holding monthly breakfasts, casino nights and corn hole tournaments.
“They’re not very successful,” Fitzgerald said. “With the economy, the public isn’t attending these things, and it’s been hard for the volunteers. When you’re gone from your family and then you’re asked to go back and spend another eight hours, that’s hard to do.”
Fitzgerald said the company is also accepting donations to the Station Three fund by mail.
“We’re trying to save up money to put a functional fire department that’s a stone’s throw from where the growth is,” he said. “The town has got to come up with a plan to provide the services that we’re being asked to do. We’re going the wrong way. We’re asking for more service and getting less money.”
Berlin Mayor Gee Williams, however, said he found it ironic that the only organization the town consistently seems to have trouble with is the fire department.
“The Town of Berlin works extremely well and has an outstanding reputation for working with partners, not only governmental partners at the county, state and federal level, we have an outstanding relationship with nonprofits that serve our community, with both the public education system and the preparatory school, and with the faith-based organizations,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we never have a disagreement, but it means we work very closely and we get a lot done together.
“It seems to be a contrarian relationship with the working relationship we have with every other organization, regardless of what kind it is,” Williams continued.
Williams said the problems with the fire company were “self-inflicted.”
“I believe there are some serious organizational and leadership problems,” he said. “That’s their privilege to do that, but it’s not going to get anything accomplished.”
As one example of the company’s internal issues, Williams said the town wrote the fire company a check for $150,000 for a new fire truck in July, and the company has yet to pick it up.
“We set aside $150,000 permanently in our budget and the only condition was that they provide us with an invoice for the vehicle and a copy of the canceled check,” he said. “And they said that was absolutely unacceptable. It’s not the way they do business.
“Our impression over the few years is that [the fire company] want money transferred to them as cash, then they can put it in reserves and eventually spend it however they wish to spend it,” Williams continued. “Our responsibility is to make sure that the money is spent for the benefit of the taxpayers and property owners and people who have businesses and property in Berlin.”
Williams also singled out Fitzgerald.
“I do not in any way blame all members, the only thing I can say is obviously there is a problem in leadership,” he said. “I haven’t said anything derogatory in a long time because I kept telling the council, ‘they’re going to do the right thing, they’re going to do the right thing, they’re going to do the right thing.’ And instead all I feel like is, at least under Mr. Fitzgerald’s leadership, they keep stabbing us in the back.”
According to Williams, Fitzgerald recently told county leadership the fire company was on the verge on bankruptcy. Williams provided the Bayside Gazette with an audit report of the Berlin Fire Company’s finances presented to the mayor and council on December 2014 showing a cash balance of $2.4 million.
“I think that’s a gross misrepresentation of facts,” Williams said. “I’ve never heard of any organization, any business, any nonprofit, any faith-based organization that can claim bankruptcy when you’ve got $2.4 million and almost no outstanding debt.
“Enough is enough,” Williams continued. “I think they have a real leadership problem. We can’t even get them to come pick up a check for $150,000 for a piece of equipment because they won’t meet those minimum, extremely basic requirements?”
Williams defended the annexation as a “strategically planned community that retains the charm and the quality of life that people have come to expect and should expect.”
In a normal relationship, he said, the approval process would move from the county leadership to the Town Council, followed by a formal meeting with the fire company.
“We would sit down with the fire company and say, ‘you’ve got a perfect location to serve this. What are some of your plans? Based on the developer’s best estimate of growth, what kind of equipment, what kind of sized building do you need?’ That’s the way we do business with everybody else,” Williams said.
“In my opinion, it is self-inflicted problems that the fire company has brought upon itself, and I don’t blame everyone in the fire company, but I do squarely think that a large percentage of this failure of leadership has to now stand on the shoulders of the current president because we didn’t have these problems before,” Williams continued. “I would bet that, some time in the future if they get their act together, these problems will go away.”