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Harford executive to pull fire commission legislation

Budgets and Budgeting

Harford County David Craig plans to withdraw his proposal for a county fire and emergency medical services commission, county spokesman Bob Thomas said Thursday afternoon.

The proposal, which was heard by the county council earlier this month, was derailed by controversy among the different stakeholders, particularly because the Harford County Fire & EMS Association, which represents the privately run fire and ambulance companies, was opposed to the bill.

Craig informed the council at 3:30 p.m. Thursday that he was not satisfied with the amendments the council had proposed for the bill, primarily one that would require six of 12 commission members to be Fire and Ambulance Association members.

"We found that was totally unacceptable," Thomas said, calling the proposed amendments "significantly detrimental" to the commission.

He said Craig would withdraw the bill at Tuesday's council legislative session and "outline steps to go forward."

"He [Craig] has made it clear that he supports the volunteer fire service, but it's not going to be an open checkbook," Thomas said.

Craig remains concerned very much in regard to the training, standards and equipment of fire and emergency service providers, he added.

The county budget for 2013 calls for spending $6.8 million for the 12 fire companies and one ambulance company in the county, about the same as in 2012. About $6.1 million is for direct grants to the companies based on their call volume, while the remainder covers insurance and administrative costs.

The county also contributes to and operates a pension system for the volunteer firemen and ambulance personnel.

Earlier this week, Craig said the commission's role would not be redundant with that of the association, explaining it is important to have people who are not connected with fire or emergency medical services advising the county.

He also said the current stakeholders who spoke at the council's public hearing on the commission are not deeply involved in the Emergency Operations Center or medical issues, as they are more concerned with the fire side.

Craig said just as the liquor control board is composed of residents at large, not liquor store owners, the fire and emergency medical service must be reviewed by an independent or unbiased group.

State Sen. Barry Glassman, who represents the county in Annapolis and has long been involved with the Level Fire Company, said earlier this week he did not want to take sides in a county debate but he agrees with the association's concerns about the commission.

Glassman, who is expected to run for county executive in 2014, said he would be concerned that the commission is too redundant to the role the association already plays.

The commission, as originally proposed, would have included 11 members who are Harford residents, six of whom would be fire or EMS providers and five who are not. One of the fire service appointees would represent the Harford County Fire & EMS Association.

The members would have been appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the county council, with a charter designated by the county executive. They would serve three-year staggered terms.

The group would have advised the county executive and other county officials on operations and training issues, and submit an annual report, although Craig said he would like that in quarterly form.

In an e-mail sent earlier this week, association president Bill Dousa said negotiation continues but emphasized that the association has supported the county's fire and EMS study completed in 2010, which set in motion a temporary commission that paved the way for the idea of a permanent one.

"The Association has embraced the study since it was released and has made efforts toward many of the recommendations contained within. We also are working toward an amenable agreement for the legalization of the fire commission," Dousa wrote.

"In addition[,] the fire service in Harford County has completed 15 of the recommendations within the fire study and has informed the county of such," he continued. "Oddly, the association does not know to what extent the county government has completed the recommendations directed toward them."

Dousa said leadership on both ends continue to work out the details to arrive at an amenable agreement.

"Since the negotiations are still underway it wouldn't be prudent to discuss anything until passage," he wrote.

Budget review

At the county council's budget review for the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Foundation on Wednesday, the group's chairperson Sharon Worthington implored the council to secure a more solid funding base for fire and emergency service officials, noting call volume continues to grow.

The foundation, an arm of the fire and ambulance association, runs ambulance services that use paid, rather than volunteer, emergency medical personnel. The foundation was established after the fire companies and the county recognized

"There is no piece of legislation in this county whatsoever that protects funding for emergency services," Worthington said. "We live in the unknown. We can't control population. We can't control call growth."

"I'm still in shock that it has been stated more than once that the fire service doesn't want accountability," she continued, adding there is 20 years of audits "sitting in somebody's office somewhere."

Council members did note the fact that the foundation went $400,000 over budget this year, requiring the council to put up "stopgap" funding recently to allow it to continue providing services through the end of the year.

The 2013 budget proposed by Craig calls for the county to pay $2.6 million to the association, an increase of $400,000 over this year.

Dottie Arnold, president of the Foundation, said she does not expect services to actually increase.

She added, "this year prior to the preparation of the budget, we asked all the companies if they had even a thought of maybe needing to increase their services to put a placeholder in the budget, and two companies put a placeholder in the budget."

"I don't see it really expanding unless the call volume goes over the hill," she said about the ambulance operation's spending. "We are going to have to sit down and renegotiate our [memorandums of understanding] with all the companies."

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