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Commissioners will hear volunteers’ case on water line expense

(Oct. 25, 2013) Ocean City’s Volunteer Fire Company will likely have another shot at recouping its costs from the county for water line installation along Keyser Point Road, County Commissioners President Bud Church said this week.

If the move is made, it will likely have ramifications throughout the county, and fear of setting a precedent continues to be the main reason why the fire company’s request could continue to be stonewalled.

“I’m going to discuss it with the commissioners again, and see if they are inclined to have [the OCVFC] come in and meet directly, or possibly fund all or part of the request,” Church said.

The move comes a week after the OCVFC penned an open letter, published in this newspaper and others, lamenting what it said was a lack of engagement from the county over an issue that the volunteer company views as one of fundamental fairness.

The dispute arises from the OCVFC’s construction of Station 5, the fire outpost on Keyser Point Road that was completed two years ago and now provides the bulk of fire service to West Ocean City. As part of the construction, the OCVFC extended the county’s public water line to the station at a cost of $192,000, according to the fire company.

The group was willing to pay this cost to have domestic water access at the new facility. However, under the county’s development statutes, the OCVFC was also required to install almost $60,000 worth of tees, hydrants, and valves along the new line so that it could be tapped into by future development projects along Keyser Point Road.

Requiring builders to install this infrastructure is standard practice in many jurisdictions, as opposed to the taxpayers directly footing the bill to create infrastructure that may or may not attract valuable development for some time.

The OCVFC, however, is not a developer who is trying to make money off the improvement of Keyser Point Road, but rather a public service and a quasi-governmental organization in itself.

“We’ve paid on something that we’ll never be able to recoup our money on,” said OCVFC President Cliff Christello. “If you’re a contractor and putting all that infrastructure in, you’re doing it knowing that there will be more building opportunities later because people now have domestic water.”

As such, the OCVFC had been operating under the assumption that it will be reimbursed for the $60,000 of what it sees as excess infrastructure. But attempts to convince the county of this have gone nowhere, leading the volunteer company to take the argument public.

“Our thinking was ‘let’s just get this out there in the public and see where it goes.’” Christello said. “The thing that irritates us is that we asked to meet with them, but we would just receive letters saying ‘we’ve decided that you’re going to be classified as a contractor’ and not get the money back.”

“I’ve had several meetings with the commissioners in reference to that,” Church said. “I brought it up three times to vote and three times they have voted not to fund any portion of it, because they felt that [the OCVFC] was the same as any other developer, and they weren’t going to set a precedent by charging a developer more than they would charge the fire company.”

Therein lies the difficulty – if the county were to give the OCVFC an infrastructure break, the same argument could be made by all of Worcester’s other fire companies for any development they may do, as well as by other non-profit groups who provide a public service.

“If we do it for the Ocean City fire company, then we have to do it for the Pocomoke company, the Newark company…it was a precedent they didn’t want to set,” Church said.

While he understood his colleagues’ argument against the move, Church said he personally was more amenable to the OCVFC’s desire, especially since his electoral district encompasses West Ocean City.

“I have an awful lot of sympathy for the fire company, because of who they are and the service they provide, but I’m just one vote,” he said.

“That’s the impression I got, that the rest of the commissioners weren’t going to support it because of the precedent,” Christello said. “But they shouldn’t feel that way. What we’re saying is that the extra stuff the county requires us to put in is not appropriate, and we feel it wouldn’t be appropriate for another fire department to have to pay for it either.”

The argument is also somewhat of a shell game, Christello noted, since the county already provides grant money to the volunteer company for its service. If the company were to recoup the $60,000 it desires, that money would go toward the same.

“It’s not like we’re putting it in a coffer and collecting interest on it,” Christello said. “That’s money that will be used for further improvements on Station 5, which improves fire service in West Ocean City.”

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