Lewes Fire Department sounds alarm at budget workshop

City, BPW donations ‘drop in the bucket’ for rising costs
February 20, 2024

The Lewes Fire Department sounded the alarm over rising costs, the need for new trucks and stagnant donations during its annual budget presentation to the city Feb. 16.

Gordon Davis, who is a member of the department’s financial viability committee, past chief and past president, delivered a bleak assessment of what could lie ahead if new revenue sources are not found.

“We know our system is fragile. We know we can’t survive on borrowed funds forever and without government support; we’re going to collapse,” Davis said.

The Lewes Fire Department is not connected to the city. It is an independent organization funded by money from the city, county, donations and grants.

The department’s 2024 budget is $4.4 million. 

The department is seeking to have the city contribute 16% of its total budget, about $610,000, because 16% of its calls are in city limits.

Lewes is the busiest fire department in Sussex County and the fifth busiest in the state, not including the City of Wilmington.

“We used to have a peak season and things would quiet down, but that just doesn’t exist anymore,” Davis said.

He said the fire and EMS fund drive has been stagnant for the last several years, accounting for about $600,000 per year. He said that does not include one-time donations.

“This is concerning to us, because we’re adding more and more properties all the time but we’re not seeing an increase in what’s being donated,” Davis said.

He said, for example, the department sends out two separate mailings each year for fire and EMS donations. He said they have a 25% return with an average donation of $83.

Davis’ biggest ask is for the city to create a fire and EMS impact fee or other sustainable funding source.

Davis also asked mayor and council to consider a one-time grant to assist with the purchase of a new $1.4 million ladder truck to replace the current 2002 truck. Davis said the department ordered it a year-and-a-half ago and hopes to take delivery at the end of this year. 

The department also has a list of unfunded capital projects that include two new ambulances and fire and rescue trucks over the next four years.

“This is real. This isn’t going away. We’re borrowing more money every year. Our responses aren’t going down. Our population isn’t going down,” Davis said.

The city and the Lewes Board of Public Works recently made annual donations to the Lewes Fire Department.

Mayor Andrew Williams gave a check for $75,000 to fire department President Richard Bunting and Treasurer Bryan Pepper at the Feb. 12 council meeting.

“This might seem like a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket,” Williams said.

The BPW voted to give a $25,000 donation to the fire department at its Dec. 7 meeting, 50% less than it gave last year. The vote was 3-2. 

“We are reliant on the fire department for the protection of all of our infrastructure and personnel,” said Tom Panetta, BPW president.

Some board members said the BPW is not in a financial position to make donations, although it supports the fire department. 

Police, parking budgets 

Lewes Police Chief Tom Spell presented proposed budgets for his department and the parking department Feb. 16.

The proposed police budget for fiscal year 2025 is $2.14 million, a 13% increase over 2024.

It includes staffing and pay increases as agreed upon in the recent collective bargaining agreement with the city. 

Spell will be hiring a school resource officer for the new Fredrick D. Thomas Middle School, which opens next school year.

The parking budget is proposed to be $239,530, a half-percent increase.

“These budgets, while fiscally responsible, also include the necessary staffing and vital equipment our employees depend on every day while serving and protecting our community,” Spell said.


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