Firemen's association agrees on spending

Carroll volunteers vote privately on splitting money

December 03, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

After months of sometimes rancorous debate, representatives of Carroll's volunteer fire companies have reached agreement on how nearly $2 million in county money for emergency medical services should be distributed -- but they refused yesterday to provide details of the plan, which was approved behind closed doors.

Thomas J. Van de Bussche, president of the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association, said yesterday that the group's leadership voted Monday night on a plan to distribute the county money, which includes allocations designed to allow the fire companies to provide enhanced, round-the-clock ambulance services. The action -- taken after reporters were directed to leave the meeting -- came four months after the association first approved a plan, only to reconsider its decision in the face of complaints from the county's smaller fire companies.

A vote on a revamped proposal was delayed in September to allow the volunteers to ask the county commissioners for more guidance on how to spend the money. Van de Bussche said yesterday that he would not reveal details of the latest plan until the commissioners have approved it.

"We're circling the wagons until we hear that this is it," he said. "We want the county to really have a chance to look at this thing and digest it."

Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr., who was a volunteer firefighter in Union Bridge for more than a decade, was critical of the association's decision to close the meeting while the distribution plan was considered.

"If they had to close the meeting for legal advice, that's one thing, but they should have opened it up for a final vote," Jones said. He said yesterday that he had not seen the association's latest plan.

The commissioners included in this year's $6.5 million fire and ambulance budget an additional $775,000 for emergency services, increasing that portion of the budget to $1.9 million. The additional money is to allow more 911 responders to be on call at night.

Under an initial plan recommended by a committee of the firemen's association for the distribution of the additional money, the Westminster fire company was shut out. A meeting called by the association in July became heated, as firefighters fought for bigger allotments for their departments. At that meeting, the association leadership voted to give Westminster, the county's largest and busiest station, the biggest cut of the money, $250,000.

But officials from several smaller companies argued that the plan would leave them unable to staff their departments overnight. County officials agreed and asked the firemen's association to devise a new plan. The revised plan reduced the amount for the companies in Westminster and Sykesville, while increasing the allotment to companies in Union Bridge and New Windsor.

After failing to come to an agreement at their September meeting, firefighters asked for the commissioners' advice on how to distribute the money in October. The commissioners did not offer specific advice, instead asking the association for a detailed breakdown of money.

Firemen's association meetings -- including discussions of the money distribution issue, and votes taken, at the meetings in July and September -- have been open to the media. Two hours into Monday night's meeting, Van de Bussche ordered a short recess and announced that only voting members of the association could return after the break for a closed session.

Van de Bussche was asked why he was closing a meeting involving public money. He said, "I don't have to give you a reason."

The Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association is a private corporation, Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation records show.

Sun staff writer Hanah Cho contributed to this article.

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