Sussex County, fire co. agreement focused on transparency

GEORGETOWN — Delaware’s volunteer fire service saves lives — and taxpayer dollars.

In Sussex County alone, it’s a multimillion-dollar endeavor, encompassing 22 individual fire companies and two ambulance companies.

Effective this December, Sussex County, which annually grants millions of dollars to the fire service, will have in place a grant agreement with beneficiaries of that funding.

At its meeting Tuesday, County Council unanimously approved a formalized agreement for county funds, structured to provide uniform reporting for a clearer picture of needed allocation, transparency and accountability.

Volunteer fire companies bank heavily on their communities for support through donations and tax dollars.

“I think (the agreement) is a great thing, and my expectation would also be that because of this, and the confidence that it would build in the communities, it may make fundraising easier,” said County Councilman John Rieley. “It is a hearty ‘yes’ for me. I think it is a great thing.”

Other council members agreed.

“I go along with Mr. Rieley,” said Councilman Samuel Wilson Jr.

Council Vice President Irwin “I.G.” Burton III applauded the pact’s transparency.

“I’m in favor of this. I think the transparency of this will help with fundraising. It just makes everything on the same page,” he said.

In 2020, the county granted $4.7 million to the fire service, after just over $5 million in 2019.

Gina Jennings

“We have reached a milestone of over $5 million. It is probably time to start making sure that tax dollars are protected as good as they can be,” said Sussex County finance director Gina Jennings during her presentation to council Tuesday. “Our fire companies and our ambulance companies rely on the community for their support. The support is very important.

“The community needs to understand they can trust the fire companies. They are primarily a volunteer service. They need donations. They rely on tax dollars greatly,” said Ms. Jennings.

Doug Hudson

Doug Hudson, president of the Sussex County Volunteer Firefighters Association, reiterated the point about volunteerism.

“I’d like to remind everyone that fire service is a volunteer organization, as you know,” he said. “The Delaware state auditor’s office reported that the volunteer fire service saved the taxpayers over $212 million last year. It is quite a savings.”

Tuesday’s passage by council capped a yearlong process. It began in summer 2019 with the SCVFA’s formation of a Fire Company Funding Committee, comprised of multiple fire departments.

“What came out of that committee is that we need consistent reporting, and we need consistent accountability,” said Ms. Jennings. “Do we need to give more money to the ambulance side? Do we give more money to the fire side? We’re just not sure because some fire companies put all that money together, which is fine.”

Fire service funding in part is determined through formulas comprised by the SCVFA. This includes Fire Enhancement, which is through the number of building permits, and Basic Life Support, which considers the number of ambulance runs.

Previously, fire/ambulance companies were required to submit an annual reviewed financial statement from an independent accountant along with monthly salary reports for their BLS funding, Ms. Jennings said.

“We never had a formalized agreement for county funds. This lays out what our obligation is at the county — what our formulas have been, who determines what the formulas are,” Ms. Jennings said. “We just didn’t have the reporting to be able to determine, ‘Where is that need?’

“This way, we have consistent reporting, and we can analyze and look at all of the fire companies and ambulance companies and compare them side by side using this report,” she said.

A draft agreement presented last September to fire company presidents, chiefs and treasurers drew changes and recommendations.

Following appointment of new SCVFA leadership in October 2019, an updated agreement was sent out, and the proposal went before the SCVFA Resource Committee, involving review and input from the fire company attorneys.

No meetings were held in April, May and June due to COVID-19. In July, the grant agreement was approved at the monthly SCVFA meeting.

“First, I’d like to thank you (Ms. Jennings) for all of your hard work. You finally got an agreement that they agreed to,” said County Council President Michael Vincent. “I also think it is a good thing. I think it will make the public feel better about transparency and knowing how the money is being accounted for. We’re not telling you how to spend it, just how to account for it.”

Mr. Hudson agreed.

“We rely on funding from the state and Sussex County Council,” said Mr. Hudson. “However, over 50% of our budgets come from fundraising and public donations. The Sussex County Volunteer Firefighters Association believes this agreement will provide transparency to the council, as well as the public. The agreement will ensure everyone their tax dollars and donations are used properly, which I think is important for all of us.”

County grant funding is earmarked for 21 fire companies in Sussex County, a half-grant allotment for Kent County-based Carlisle that serves part of Sussex and two ambulance companies.

In 2020, the average amount received by the fire companies was $197,000, and the average amount for an ambulance-only company was $152,000, Ms. Jennings said.

Jason McCabe, vice president and Financial Committee chairman for the Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Department, welcomed the agreement.

“The Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Department is always open to doing what we need to do to be more transparent, to ensure the confidence of the community’s faith in us that we are good stewards with the funds that they trust us with to provide fire service and (Emergency Medical Service),” said Mr. McCabe. “While it’s a little more work for a volunteer person, it is well worth it, that in the long run, it will help us justify the need for additional funds to maintain a high level of high quality of emergency services.”

Mr. McCabe added: “There has been a lot of discussions back and forth through it and how it is being done. But quite honestly, the Sussex County fire departments enjoy a good, high level of support from the Sussex County Council. So it’s good to see them say, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to need a little more information from you,’ just to be able to justify the additional funding that is bound to come. You know, 20 years ago, you could buy a firetruck for a quarter of a million dollars. Today, it will cost you $900,000.”

Not every volunteer company in Sussex County is onboard, however, including Georgetown and Bethany Beach, as of this week’s council meeting.

Thus far, five companies turned in signed agreements.

“Some fire companies are able to sign them right away because they already have financial policies in place. The agreement requires that you have these policies,” said Ms. Jennings. “We’re not telling you what those policies have to be, just that your board has approved the policy.”

County auditors are not writing the policies.

“They are verifying the policies exist and are being followed,” said Ms. Jennings. “Our auditors can go in and verify the procedures are in place and are being followed, or the fire company can pay for their own auditor to do it. It is completely up to the fire company, as long as we have the report back.”

Mr. McCabe said he looks forward to solidifying his department’s relationship with the county.

“Anything that we can do to strengthen our relationship with the County Council and maintain that high level of support,” he said. “And definitely in this day and age, where social media takes good news and spreads it but bad news travels like a wildfire, the last thing that we want to do is to provide another source of ignition for poor press, for us as the fire service not using the community’s funds judiciously. We look to improve our transparency.”

The agreements are not due to the county until Dec. 1.

“We want to be able to make sure the companies have time to get the required procedures in place before signing the agreement,” said Ms. Jennings. “After support from the SCVFA and today’s vote by council, it is expected that each company will sign the agreement by Dec. 1 in order to receive county funds.”

And if a company does not comply, their funding could be in jeopardy, Councilman Rieley said.

“My expectation would be that if they don’t, then we won’t be able to fund them,” he said.

“I’m going to stay positive,” said Ms. Jennings. “This is a good thing. I will assume they will. We’ll get them all.”

On behalf of the SCVFA, Mr. Hudson thanked County Council for continued funding this year, especially given the challenging COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID has really presented us a lot of problems. You guys stepped forward and helped us like you always do,” said Mr. Hudson. “I’d also like to thank Gina Jennings for her efforts with this agreement. She has spent many hours (and) phone conversations, and Ronnie Marvel, my Resource (Committee) chairman. They’ve done a wonderful job working on this. Thank you for your hard work.”