(Delmarvanow.com) -- Chincoteague officials are still considering whether to approve the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company's request to acquire ownership of a building it has leased from the town for more than 15 years.
The fire company stores equipment in the former public works building at 6293 Cropper St.
When it was inspected seven years ago, the building was found to be not structurally sound due to its age and deterioration of the mortar and brick walls, according to a July 10 letter to Mayor J. Arthur Leonard from Willis J. Dize, the fire company's president.
The fire company wants to continue to use the building for storage until its new firehouse is completed, then sell it along with the old firehouse, the letter said, noting the storage building could be torn down and the property used for parking.
The request sparked a debate among council members at the August town meeting, resulting in Leonard calling to have the building appraised before officials vote on what to do with it.
A request for a professional assessment of the building's value has been made and results could be available by next month, said Jim West, Chincoteague town manager.
Still, the debate among council members continued at the Sept. 5 council meeting, with Fire Chief Harry S. Thornton and residents also weighing in during the public comment period.
Thornton referenced remarks Councilwoman Ellen Richardson made during the August discussion, when she said the town spends $700,000 on emergency medical services annually.
Thornton said the remarks made it sound like the town is giving the sum to the fire company.
He said the town's EMS services are a department "just like any other department the town's got — the police department, the public works department."
"You can't separate it and say, 'We give the fire company $500,000 for EMS.' You're not giving it to us — it's your department. We take care of everything else," Thornton said.
"It's not a tax on the local people; it was never set up that way," he said.
Richardson replied, saying, "No, but it's the taxpayer's money that comes in locally from Chincoteague."
Thornton disagreed, saying the town EMS system was set up around 1990 to be paid for through a portion of the transient occupancy tax, which is paid by visitors to the island.
"That way tourism is paying for the EMS system," he said.
"It was a line-item budget; it was strictly EMS, nothing else," he said, noting at some point later it became part of the general fund.
It was the growth in tourism on Chincoteague that led officials at the time to see the need for a paid EMS system in the town, he said.
Richardson's comment about the large sum of money came to the attention of the fire company and others in town after the August meeting.
"It has been kind of disturbing to the company ... On a light note, I asked Mr. West (town manager Jim West) where our $701,000 check was, but he hasn't cut it yet," said Thornton.
"It's not coming to us — we'd be glad to have a $700,000 check," he said of the money budgeted for emergency medical services.
"We all have to work together; we have always worked together all our life here," Thornton said.
Thornton noted the fire company recently spent $500,000 on a new fire truck in compliance with a policy "in order for the community to keep their fire insurance down" and also is in the process of building a $5 million firehouse.
"Thank God, we haven't had to ask the town for a whole lot," he said.
Still, Councilman Jim Frese said he came up with the same figure as Richardson regarding the amount the town spends on EMS services. He noted ambulance billing revenue from insurance goes to the fire company, not the town.
"That's what just purchased a $250,000 ambulance," Thornton said.
Chincoteague resident Peggy Thomas praised the service she and her husband have received over the past several years from Chincoteague EMS providers
"I never received a bill from them at all — never," she said.
Three weeks ago, she needed to call 911 for a health emergency.
"They weren't 10 minutes getting to my door ... This island better stick with that fire company, because if you go to a paid fire company, the Lord only knows what you'll be out," she said, adding, "As far as I'm concerned, about the property on Cropper Street — give it to them; let them have it."
Patricia Farley, who owns adjoining property, said she and another nearby property owner are interested in purchasing the property.
Vice Mayor Denise Bowden said of the $700,000 figure, "Whether it's fact or fiction, I feel strongly that the taxpayers out there need to know where the money is coming from and where it is going."
Leonard said at the August meeting "some facts and figures were thrown out that raised some eyebrows — those figures were probably spat out to make a point."
He repeated that the town needs to have the building in question appraised before addressing the fire company's request.
"I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill. We're dealing with a piece of property that the town hasn't used and probably never will use again — and we're making it into the Taj Mahal," he said.
"The citizens of the town of Chincoteague, from what I've gathered, are all behind the volunteer fire company — because when you dial 911, they're there. So we need to stop this bickering back and forth," Leonard said, adding, "... We as a town should be supportive of the volunteer fire company, because they save us money in the long run."