‘Big Four’ lined up for ambulance service

Bethany Beach became the final of the so-called “Big Four” communities this week to sign on to a memorandum of understanding with the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company (BBVFC) for the provision of ambulance service through 2019. With a unanimous vote of the Bethany council at their April 18 meeting, the BBFVC now has long-term agreements with officials representing 70 percent of properties in their proposed coverage area.

Fire officials have focused on Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island and Sea Colony in making their case for a home-grown ambulance service in recent months, after the announcement that the Millville Volunteer Fire Company would no longer provide service to the Bethany fire district beginning in January of 2009, due to massive population growth in their own fire district.

Local fire and municipal officials were not given the solution to the loss of the existing ambulance service as quickly or easily as they had hoped, with Delaware’s State Fire Prevention Commission unable to reach a conclusion as to how to otherwise handle the change and recommending the BBVFC take over the ambulance service for their district. State legislators were also unable pass legislation that would have created a special tax district solely to pay for ambulance service.

BBVFC officials stepped up and said they would take on the service themselves, if they could get sufficient support and agreement from local officials. As of last Friday, they have done so.

In a series of presentations and meetings with officials from the three towns and the Sea Colony Recreation Association, BBVFC officials worked out the basic elements of an agreement that would guarantee provision of ambulance service to the towns — and their support of the service — for the next 10 years.

As currently proposed — though yet to be locked in with a formal agreement of service — each property in the three towns and in Sea Colony would be subject to a $45 annual fee that would be collected with town taxes or other annual fees to their governing bodies. The funds collected would go to the BBVFC’s new ambulance service, which has just eight months to get its equipment and personnel in place.

The annual fee is a change from how the Millville company has traditionally garnered much of its funds — through voluntary membership and related annual voluntary contributions of $30 or more per household, in addition to other fundraising and government grants. Those who pay for the Millville membership are entitled to ambulance service at no additional cost, while those who are not members must pay full rates to the company.

The mandatory assessment toward the BBVFC ambulance service will ensure that all businesses and residences in the district are covered, even if the people living or staying in them are not the property owner or the person who paid the annual fee. That means even those renting weekly in the coastal towns’ many rental properties will be entitled to ambulance service without additional cost, should they need it.

Ambulance personnel are some of the few emergency responders associated with the area’s fire companies who are paid for their service. Nearly all of the area’s firefighters volunteer their efforts and take on the risks associated with their jobs with no monetary compensation. That has led to a shortage of firefighters for some of the companies in recent years and the standard of paid ambulance personnel — one of the many costs of establishing the new ambulance service in coastal Sussex County.

The BBVFC’s start-up costs to provide ambulance service have been estimated to be roughly $500,000, with an annual operating tag of nearly $300,000. Those final numbers are still being determined, with reminders at the passage of the memorandum of understanding by the Bethany council last Friday that exact details are yet to be formalized. Still, the $45 annual fee is considered to be a likely figure.

Bethany Beach Councilman Joseph Healy did state some concerns about the BBVFC’s finances in discussing the agreement on April 18. He said he had been working the BBVFC’s Bob Minutoli to get some financial details that would allow him to better analyze the department’s financial situation. He also expressed reservations about signing a 10-year agreement with the department, saying that he had been told five-year agreements were relatively standard.

Still, council members were decisively in favor of the agreement.

“It’s an excellent agreement,” declared Councilman Tracy Mulligan.

Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny praised Town Manager Cliff Graviet and Mayor Carol Olmstead for the hours they have spent meeting with the BBVFC and working out the details of the agreement.

Councilman Bob Parsons also thanked the fire company and pointed out the agreement as one indication that sometimes local officials can accomplish things even those at the state level failed to do.

“The legislators couldn’t get it done. [The fire commission] couldn’t get it done,” he said. “Tonight, we’re going to get it done.

With that, the council cast its unanimous vote favoring the agreement.

Also on April 18:

• The council voted unanimously to purchase a beach cleaner machine with which town staff will clean its beaches as often as daily. A $52,480 machine was substituted in the proposed contract for the original $46,000 model leading up to the April 18 meeting, on late recommendations from the Public Works department after a demonstration and additional user reviews on both models. The town previously paid an outside vendor for beach clean-up services three times per week during the summer. Town staff will now be able to clean the beaches more quickly and more frequently.

• Council members also voted unanimously to purchase a $11,294 all-terrain vehicle for the town’s beach patrol. Graviet cited the newly widened beach as a major factor in the need for the ATV, which other nearby beach towns already have but which Bethany has resisted purchasing in past years. The ATV would be used to move equipment, help keep an eye on the town’s lifeguard stands and potentially to help move injured beachgoers across the new dunes and beach.

• The town’s concession for yoga to be offered on the bandstand and boardwalk in the 2008 season were unanimously granted to Bethany Beach Yoga, which has held the concession for years. The town did not receive a request from any vendor for its traditional boardwalk aerobics concession and thus did not award one this year.

• Council members gave a first formal look to proposed changes to the town’s code regarding open fires. Under the proposed ordinance change, the code would also specifically deal with outdoor cooking and recreational fires. The proliferation of “chimneas” and fire pits, as well as backyard barbecues led to the change. Those examining the code also discovered that existing code technically does not allow backyard barbecues at present.

The proposed new code would restrict the use of outdoor fires and barbecues within certain distances of a structure. It would also set out allowances for the burning of debris and structures by local firefighters with owner or town permission. Those with outdoor recreational and cooking fires would also be required to extinguish them immediately upon a complaint.

Council members debated April 18 what format such complaints should take for the requirement to go into effect. They also expressed concerns about whether the restriction requiring at least 10 feet between barbecue grills and structures would apply (problematically) to the wooden decking upon which they are often placed, and whether single-family homes should be equally restricted from such recreational fires as the proposed legislation had put in place for multi-family structures.

The rationale for the latter was that such fires at multi-family structures would be more subject to one or more residents being unaware that a fire was burning on-site.

Former Councilman and Planning Commission Chairman Lew Killmer said he would consider the council’s input on the legislation and make changes prior to next month’s anticipated second reading and vote.

• The council closed the books on its 2008 fiscal year, coming out with 107.73 percent of its budgeted revenue and 91.81 percent of budgeted expenses spent. That compares to 93.8 percent of budgeted revenue and 89.71 percent of expenses in the 2007 fiscal year. The town took in some $500,000 more in revenue than was budgeted for the fiscal year, despite a drop in transfer taxes of $145,000 from 2007’s levels.

• Parsons noted the filing of the written opinion that day by the town’s Board of Adjustments, which he chairs, in the application of Simpler Surveying for a variance of 4 inches in height on a residence due to a surveyor error. The filing kicks off a 30-day appeal period before the decision is final. Parsons now plans to formally announce future Board decision filings at council meetings, to ensure all legal requirements are met.

• Resident Margaret Young requested the town consider asking for permission to place benches along the top of the town’s new dunes and/or dune crossings, to give those used to sitting on the boardwalk and looking at the ocean a place to do so in the new beach configuration. Olmstead noted opposition from state natural resources officials to putting anything on top of the dunes, but Graviet said he would pursue the idea.

• Resident Joan Thomas complained about the difference between reconstructed beach crossings at the north and south ends of the town. She said the lack of railings and steps to the south made those walkways less than handicapped-friendly. Graviet noted that all the crossings were constructed to the project’s plans. The town also has a handicapped-accessible crossing.

• Resident Jim McGrath took council members to task for the lack of a plan to push state and federal officials to reduce the height of the new dune and restore views of the ocean from the boardwalk.

“These people don’t like it,” he said. “They weren’t supposed to be that high. Why don’t you make them fix it?” he demanded. “You’ve broken the back of Bethany Beach!”

Olmstead and Graviet emphasized that the project was run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and that the issue has been addressed by state officials with the Corps.

“The appeal has been made and we’ve received the Corps’ officials reply,” Graviet said. “There will not be any adjustment made to the dune until the next replenishment cycle and only then if it doesn’t affect our storm protection.”

• Graviet announced the planned filing this coming week of applications with DNREC for the expansion of the town’s boardwalk toward the east. He said he expects a decision to be made within 30 to 90 days.

He also noted the loss of 1,600 feet of new snow fence for the new beach due to coastal storms on April 7. That snow fence will need to be replaced, as will another section of dune fence burned in a bonfire by persons unknown in recent weeks.

The town has received four proposals for its annual Fourth of July fireworks, which Graviet said he hopes will be able to be shot directly from the beach now that it has been widened.

Some 90 percent of the town’s seasonal workers have returned, Graviet said, with a few spots in public works and the police department yet to be filled to take the town up to its full summer complement.

Graviet and council members praised town horticulturalist Melinda Lindy for her work on the town’s flower displays this year.