As has happened in many communities, Ocean Pines is experiencing friction between its volunteer fire company and the local governing authority, as it and its counterparts elsewhere grapple with rising costs versus the need to maintain an excellent level of service.
Fortunately for Ocean Pines, this has been a low-volume discussion, which on the surface is about who will own the station and property on which a new South Gate fire station will be built. But beneath all that is the question of whether the company should cede some authority to the board of directors to get what it needs.
The is not an unusual conflict, as it’s bound to happen whenever a proudly independent volunteer organization is confronted with even the remote possibility of someday finding itself subservient to people outside the fire service.
Like all elected officials, however, the directors are accountable for taking care of the public’s money and are understandably averse to spending without some kind of control. This is even though they are bound to provide for the safety and well-being of the community — just like the fire company.
While the Worcester County code stipulates that chartered fire companies “shall not be controlled by any other legal entity” and must have complete control over their own funds, this does not prohibit that other legal entity from owning property and using it as collateral for a loan. What this other legal entity can’t do, however, is manage, equip and maintain a station, because that would be tantamount to “control.”
The dilemma here is that both sides want to do what’s right, but are constricted legally, philosophically, and financially from doing it. Meanwhile, the real problem is that public contributions to volunteer companies aren’t what they used to be and haven’t kept up with the cost of providing the service they expect.
Although choosing a side in this debate might seem like the thing to do, there is no right and wrong side to take. Residents and property owners shouldn’t blame the company or the board for the positions they have taken, but should accept that as beneficiaries of this service, they are obligated to help bring about a solution by giving more generously themselves.