Ocean View council continues to discuss ambulance fees

The Ocean View Town Council this week reviewed its latest draft agreement for ambulance subscription fee, which would require businesses and property owners to pay a flat rate of $35 per year to the Millville Volunteer Fire Company (MVFC) to help pay for ambulance service, for a period of three years.

The fee would provide that any resident who is transported by MVFC ambulance would have their insurance is billed first, and the MVFC wouldn’t charge the patient any remaining balance if the family has an ambulance service subscription.

Ambulance subscriptions are currently offered, for $50 annually, to all households in the fire district, which includes Millville, Ocean View, Clarksville and other unincorporated areas; however, participation in the subscription is not mandatory. The new fee would be assessed on all improved properties and would be passed on by the Town to the MVFC.

Last winter, the MVFC approached the towns of Ocean View and Millville with a fee proposal. Both councils instructed their town staff to begin drafting an agreement for municipality-wide discount ambulance subscriptions; however, the brakes were put on that process in May, when, after a year-long investigation, the Delaware Office of Auditor of Accounts confirmed that it appeared that there had been an embezzlement of more than $190,000 in fire company funds, allegedly by the MVFC’s now-former treasurer,.

Justin Oakley was arrested in May of 2016 on charges of Theft Over $100,000 and 100 counts of Falsifying Business Records.

Last month, the Millville Town Council conditionally approved the discounted ambulance subscription, with the caveat that MVFC change its bylaws by the Dec. 13 town council meeting, to reflect safeguards suggested by the Auditor’s office.

The Town of Ocean View, however, tabled their decision to review the draft agreement more closely. A third Ocean View meeting was held on Oct. 5, with representatives from the MVFC and the Town of Ocean View reviewing the latest draft agreement.

Some of the items in the draft agreement include requiring MVFC to “at all times comply with Delaware State Fire Prevention Regulations, 710 Ambulance Service Regulations.”

A section dedicated to the company’s responsibilities was also proposed, including following:

“1. MVFCIAS shall provide quarterly budget updates within forty-five (45) days of the end of each quarter to Municipality. The update shall show, among other things, (1) income, (2) expenses, (3) any project to changes in Municipality funding requirements and timing and (4) appropriate explanations of the adjustments.

“2. MVFCIAS shall retain a certified public accountant (‘CPA’) to make recommendations on internal budgeting, accounting, reporting and auditing policies to keep the Service’s operations separate from all other MVFCIAS emergency service operations. The fiscal year of the service shall begin the 1st day of [month] of each calendar year. The CPA shall, within one-hundred twenty (120) days of the end of each fiscal year, prepare an audit and deliver same to the Municipality.

“3. MVFCIAS shall secure a fidelity bond for its treasure, assistant treasurer and check signatories in an amount acceptable to Municipality.”

The latest draft removed the requirement that, “MVFCIAS shall prepare and present for review by the Municipality an annual Operating Budget for the Service that is independent of any other emergency service operations provided by Millville Volunteer Fire Company, Inc.”

Ocean View Mayor Walter Curran said that, outside of the subscription service they hope to have with Ocean View, MVFC still has their $50 subscription plan for anyone outside of the municipality.

“This is a discount to that… We will have to make some internal adjustments to that, along with other billing procedures for lack of a better word.”

Councilman Tom Maly asked if there had been any movement by Sussex County with regard to having an ambulance fee for the whole fire district.

“They know it’s a concern,” said Fire Chief Doug Scott. “I don’t really see that moving fast.”

“That’s on the slow belt,” added Curran. “I don’t see that happening in the next five years at least. They’re going to talk it to death.”

Council could hold back monies if siren stays

Curran also brought up concerns about the company’s fire siren, which he said has been a “thorn in everybody’s side.”

The Town has been receiving complaints about the siren, which is located at 33 Central Avenue and operates from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. to notify volunteer firefighters of an alarm.

Although it has been the minority of citizens complaining, Curran said they too deserve to be heard, as the siren has become a nuisance to their daily lives. He agreed 100 percent that the siren serves a valuable purpose, but questioned whether it might not be antiquated technology, given the age people live in today.

“The larger question still remains, though: In the era of electronic communications … is a siren really needed?” asked Curran. “From my perspective … we feel, if you had a scheduled shift of volunteers, the reaction time would be better, more consistent.”

Curran said he had met with Scott and requested the siren be disabled on a voluntary basis.

“The chief made it pretty clear at the time that they weren’t ready to do that.”

Curran said he had gone on to discuss with Scott whether movement on the issue of the siren might happen if the Town started to seriously consider withholding from the fire department funds that come through the Town’s Emergency Services grant program.

“Should we put a cap on it?” he asked, adding that the Town would want the fire company to keep the siren but only use it if their electronic system fails.

Since the grant was started in 2008, the Town of Ocean View has awarded MVFC with approximately $650,000 in grant monies.

Scott told Curran that if he wished to present that in a letter to the fire company, Scott would present it at their next meeting and it would be discussed.

Curran said that in the month of August 2016, there were a total of 304 calls to the MFVC for service, of which 263 were for ambulance/EMS and 41 were fire calls. Of those 304 calls, 49 were within the municipal limits of Ocean View.

He noted that the siren is not used for EMS calls.

Curran said the Town considering reducing the grant could make the council look like the bad guys but would be a practical move on the Town’s part, given that that money could be used elsewhere — for instance, to reduce permit fees and make the cost of doing business with the Town less.

He said the idea was not up for a vote that evening but up for serious consideration. He added that the Town could wait until after the next election to decide and do a poll of residents at that time.

Scott, who was in attendance at the council’s Oct. 11 meeting, first thanked the Town for their past financial support.

“I think it’s inappropriate to mix funding and the fire siren,” he added. “That’s the way I feel about it. I think they’re two separate issues.”

Scott said the fire company appreciates the Town’s recommendations in terms of scheduling volunteers so as to avoid having to use the siren. He said they would consider it; however, at the moment, he said, the MVFC needs “every volunteer we can get.”

He noted that the grant money had been offered up to reflect growth in the Town, which resulted in a growing need for emergency services.

“The reason that money is valuable to us — if you’re building more homes, we’re getting more calls,” Scott said. “I’m just a fire chief. My job is to ensure public safety… to answer calls effectively. I think the fire siren is still a part of that response system.”

Maly asked if the siren could be relocated to an area that would be of lower impact to residents. Scott said it would be moving the problem from one area of town to another. Maly asked if the pitch or volume of the siren could be adjusted, Scott said it could not.

Councilman Frank Twardzik said he lives near the siren and rarely notices it anymore. There was one night it did wake him a few years ago, he said, when a neighboring house was on fire.

Councilwoman Carol Bodine asked how volunteers are responding to fires at night, since the sirens are no longer on during the night,

“We’re definitely relying on the pagers. We’re trying to accommodate as much as we can,” said Scott.

Resident Steve Cobb suggested a trial period of disconnecting the siren, to see how the company is affected, if at all.

“We are starting to slow down in the town,” he said. “Why don’t we shut off the siren for a 90-day window and report back on how it reacts? Doing something is better than doing nothing, in my opinion.”