MVFC makes appeal for enhanced funding from Millville

The Town of Millville heard from Millville Volunteer Fire Company President Greg Tietmeyer, and Public Information Officer Bob Powell at their meeting this week, regarding the Town of Millville’s donations to the fire company. The men were requesting that Millville take another look at the language in Delaware code that limits real estate transfer tax monies to going toward “public safety.”

Powell said that, in 2011, there were 1,437 EMS calls and 382 fire calls, for a total of 1,819 emergencies.

“That’s an average of five times a day our equipment is hitting the street,” he noted.

The fire company is requesting that the 3 percent of levied property taxes for fire service and the 3 percent levied funds for ambulance services that the Town of Millville does give them be combined so they could receive 6 percent total and then choose what percentage to give to each side of their operation, at their own discretion. They said the ambulance service payroll alone eats up about $548,000 of a $601,000 ambulance-service budget.

Powell read from a 1990 decision from the then-attorney general that transfer tax money could be used for “supplemental funding for fire and ambulance services.” Town Administrator Debbie Botchie responded by saying a 1998 decision had amended that finding.

“This has been amended,” she explained, “the State, the County and the Town of Millville all mirror what I had supplied before.”

She also said the town solicitor and the town’s auditor gave the opinion that how they currently give money is the best way to go, according to how the charter is written. “The Millville Volunteer Fire Company is a stand-alone entity that the Town of Millville has no responsibility for,” she added.

Town Solicitor Seth Thompson said, in giving history of the regulation, that the individual terms “public works, fire, ambulance” had been removed and the 1998 amendment replaced them with “public works.”

“I couldn’t find a synopsis for removing those examples,” he said. “Legislators often act with a purpose, but you don’t always know what that purpose is.”

“It’s two separate issues,” he further explained. “There is an overall cap that says 3 percent for each, and then there is a difference between a donation and a cost.”

Powell then asked if the fire company could send a bill for services to the Town of Millville to help fund the ambulance services.

“I don’t want to circumvent the law,” said Thompson.

“The bottom line is we are struggling,” offered Tietmeyer. “Almost 50 percent goes to EMS, which leaves us limited funds for the operating side.”

Mayor Gerry Hocker offered some words, as well, saying it was “disappointing” that, with help from the Springtime Jamboree his father, Gerald Hocker, hosts each year and discounts that the fire company was struggling. He said that, in 2002, before all the development and before anybody “knew who Beazer was, or Toll Brothers, or NVR, I thought, ‘This development coming is going to be a strain on the fire company.’”

“I presented it to council that we do whatever change we need to charge a mandatory $100 fee to every lot owner, home that got built, etc., to fund the fire company. I got called into a meeting at the fire company and about seven people were there — I think you were there,” he said to Tietmeyer, “and I was told, ‘Thank you very much for thinking about us, but no thank you.’ I was told to drop it, and I did.”

Tietmeyer said he didn’t remember being there but offered that, in hindsight, “We probably went in the wrong direction,” mentioning that fear of losing State and County grant funds could have been a reason for refusing such an idea, because “at the County level they were totally against it.”

“We were probably wrong. It worked out quite well for Bethany Beach. They are quite lucrative.”

The Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company, when it added ambulance service to replace service previously offered by the MVFC in its fire service area, worked with town councils in Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island, as well as representatives of Sea Colony, to start a system of annual ambulance service fees assessed to all property owners in those areas. Property owners in unincorporated areas of the BBVFC’s fire district are not required to pay a service fee but are generally assessed higher ambulance service costs when they use the service.

Botchie noted that a charter change was made in 2004 that allowed for the Town to assess impact fees, but she said an ordinance enacting such fees was never adopted.

“We are not looking to raise taxes. We are just looking for a way to legally and morally tap into some of the real estate transfer tax that the Town is sitting on, getting very little interest rates on,” said Tietmeyer.

“Be careful what you ask for,” countered Botchie. “You can see the transfer taxes are going down. Property taxes are the only revenue a town can rely on, and you get 6 percent of every house.”

“Well, not to sound greedy, but we are not asking for either/or, we are asking for both,” said Tietmeyer.

He said the fire company’s books were open, and town officials said they would take them up on getting a copy of their expenses. Powell said he would take the 1998 amendment and research that again and possibly knock on doors of legislators to “help us all out.”

The council this week also approved a conditional use to increase Dickens Parlour Theatre to a 61 seat maximum capacity, approved outdoor seating at Perucci’s Classic Italian Restaurant and voted to amend the town’s zoning ordinance, allowing for temporary real estate sales centers.