Walkersville explores fire service changes -- Gazette.Net


After a controversial vote by the Frederick County Board of Commissioners centralized command of fire and rescue service, Walkersville is considering moving the town’s volunteer fire and ambulance companies under municipal control rather than joining the county system.

The town has formed a committee to study its options after the “unfortunate” decision by the commissioners to give the head of the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Services Division more control over the county’s 3,600 volunteers, Walkersville Commissioner Russell Winch said at a meeting between the commissioners and leaders of municipalities on Jan. 10.

The commissioners voted Jan. 8 to make fire and rescue Director Tom Owens director of the entire division, with the rank of chief, giving him more control over the volunteers, as well as the 335 paid firefighters in the county.

The change, which takes effect July 1, also creates a nine-member advisory board including members of the volunteer companies, the local firefighters union and the public.

Owens will not receive an increase in his $131,000 salary to account for his increased responsibilities, County Manager Lori Depies said.

Winch said the town’s committee will be looking for ways to have the decision reversed and is inviting other municipalities to contact them with their concerns.

“We think it’s ill-advised; we think it’s detrimental to the volunteer fire services,” Winch said. “So we’re just putting the word out that we’re going to be investigating options with regard to the decision.”

Walkersville Commissioner Chad Weddle, who heads the committee, said Monday that the town is examining whether it has the ability and the desire to operate the fire and ambulance companies.

Weddle said he didn’t plan to take any action on the committee until at least February, in part, to let matters settle down after last week’s controversial vote.

The town’s tax rate is 14.7 cents per $100 of assessed property value, and its fire district tax is an additional 8 cents per $100, Weddle said.

Walkersville’s fire company is 100 percent volunteer, but its ambulance company has two paid staff members between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a pool of about 70 members who staff it on nights and weekends, he said.

The fire and ambulance companies got about $140,000 from the county for fire and rescue services in the last fiscal year, Weddle said.

The membership figures make Weddle confident that the town could run the fire company for less than the current 8 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

Owens said Monday he couldn’t comment on the Walkersville committee until he sees any proposal it comes up with.

Maryland law allows municipalities to run their own fire services, but a transition would almost certainly require negotiations with the county over money, dispatching requirements and other factors, Owens said.

The vote to make Owens “director” replaced a proposal to make him the “chief” of the fire service.

That proposal was voted down twice by the members of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, with the proposal to designate the position as director developed as a compromise.

Winch criticized the compromise as “semantics,” saying any loss of autonomy would ultimately hurt the volunteers.

“It’s been working right for ... 150 years or more, and we see it continuing to work well without having management from outside,” he said.

Blaine R. Young (R), president of the board of commissioners, said on Jan. 10 that the county’s financial commitment to the fire service made it necessary to give Owens more oversight authority.

“People need to realize it’s a $50-million service with 335 paid people ... with the request for 23 more this year,” he said.

Young said he hopes cooler heads will prevail and allow the new system a chance to work.

“We need volunteers now more than ever. This board is pro-volunteer and will continue to be pro-volunteer,” he said. “And I believe Tom Owens is pro-volunteer based on his leadership thus far.”

It isn’t the first time Walkersville has made such threats, going so far as to deliver signed petitions to previous commissioners, Young said Monday.

But he warned that the town should make sure it understands all of the ramifications of leaving the county service.

“Any municipality [that] wants to take it over, just let us know how we can help,” he told Winch on Jan. 10. “In terms of process, don’t come looking for money.”