Cecil County Fire Companies Aghast at Budget; Spending Rises 5.8% but Equipment $ in Doubt

April 4, 2018

It was just two days after Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy presented his new Fiscal 2019 budget that the county suffered one of its most devastating fire emergencies, when the Owens Landing condo project in Perryville erupted into a fireball that destroyed one building, injured four people, and made 24 people homeless.

The embers were still smoldering when Monica Penhollow, the “godmother” of county volunteer fire companies and a former president of the Cecil County Fireman’s Association, went onto social media to make an impassioned appeal on, and criticism of, the new county budget that had been proposed just two days earlier.

“Everyone who knows me, understands the love & passion I have for the fire & EMS service. You also know how vocal I have been & can be,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Fighting local government over monies to have that equipment, and have it ready to go, and have the people trained and ready to go, should never be questioned. There is no dollar value for your life or mine.”

McCarthy’s Fiscal 2019 budget, unveiled on Friday 3/30/2018, proposed overall county funds to the nine volunteer fire companies in the county of $4.4 million, a 5.8 percent budget increase over the current fiscal year.

But the volunteers are upset that the new budget freezes spending levels for new equipment at the same $465,275 level as the current year’s budget, instead of upping spending to the $973,000 that the fire companies requested.

The proposed new budget specifies that county aid of $125,000 was requested for a new ambulance for the Hack’s Point fire company, as well as another $125,000 for an ambulance for Chesapeake City. In addition, the budget cites requests for $325,000 for a fire engine for Chesapeake City and another $325,000 for a fire engine at the Water Witch company in Port Deposit.

Penhallow said that at current costs, the full price of an ambulance is about $225,000 while a fire engine costs $450,000 to $700,00. Traditionally, the county provides half the cost of a major piece of equipment while the fire companies obtain state and federal grants, or do their own fundraising efforts, to pay for the balance of the cost.

For example, the Water Witch company obtained a massive Homeland Security grant of $414,286 to pay most of the costs of a pumper truck two years ago, and also obtained a $60,000 federal grant last year for mechanical CPR equipment.

Wayne Tome, a former County Commissioner, and the EMS chief for Water Witch as well as the Vice President of the county’s Fireman’s Association, told Cecil Times that “It’s a charade that they are playing” in the new county budget proposal. He said that a substantial portion of increases in the firefighting section of the budget comes from the county finally abiding by provisions of state law to provide retirement benefits to longtime volunteer firefighters with guaranteed funding. He said that a firefighter with 25 years service would retire with a benefit of $300 a month.

Tome said the fire companies were especially upset that “no one talked to us about freezes” on the equipment funds before the budget was announced.

And Tome got an added shock on Wednesday when a mechanical consultant “condemned” a rusting fire engine and declared it unfit for service, meaning that Water Witch will only have two remaining fire engines to serve the community.

Tome said the fire companies were upset and confused about the wording of the new county budget that included language stating that over $588,000 had been cut from equipment funds “per CE” (county executive) directives. Although the budget specifies equipment aid to Hack’s Point, Chesapeake City and Water Witch, he said the companies were uncertain if they would receive the usual half-cost funding from the county for equipment needs.

County budget officials said that there should not be such confusion, and that the budget documents clearly stated how much county aid would be provided to the equipment purchases, totaling $465,275, or the same amount provided in the current budget. Local fire companies could choose how they spent the equipment aid allocated to them, officials said. But the provided aid falls short of the traditional half and half formula for new equipment purchases.

Meanwhile, the fire companies’ upset surfaced in County Council politics, with Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) saying on social media that the County Executive should provide “full funding” of the fire companies’ requests. “I am calling on County Council and the administration to fully restore this funding request by reducing funding in less important areas or utilize other funding sources. We are fortunate to have such a high quality fire and emergency management service in our county, and we need to fully support them,” he wrote.

In an interview with Cecil Times Schneckenburger, who serves as the Council’s representative to the volunteer fire companies, said that McCarthy should submit an amendment to the budget he presented to the Council, restoring the requested funds to the fire companies and finding offsets by cutting spending for some other programs. “Alan could fix this and he’d be a hero,” Schneckenburger said.

Schneckenburger is a candidate for re-election to his current seat on the County Council this year. He ran unsuccessfully against McCarthy for county executive two years ago and it is an open secret that he would like to run again in two years, possibly against McCarthy, for the executive position.

One Response to Cecil County Fire Companies Aghast at Budget; Spending Rises 5.8% but Equipment $ in Doubt

  1. mary on April 14, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    “Fighting local government over monies to have that equipment, and have it ready to go, and have the people trained and ready to go, should never be questioned. There is no dollar value for your life or mine.”

    Well, no. It absolutely should be questioned, as should each and every other government expenditure. Governments, just like households, have limited resources; allocating those resources is a matter of competing priorities, hence politics.

    Volunteer fire companies vs. animal control: throwdown, anyone?

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