While county residents may miss out on a bevy of carnivals this summer due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the loss for volunteer fire companies will be much more dire.
With the cancellation of summer carnivals and other fundraising events due to the continued threat of the novel coronavirus, the 25 volunteer fire and rescue corporation across Frederick County are expecting to see a combined loss of $1.5 million in revenue by August, said Deputy Chief Kevin Fox, the director of the county’s Division of Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services. With most estimates of a full reopening set as far ahead as early fall in Maryland, many volunteer agencies — which rely heavily on support from the community for equipment and construction — are dead in the water when it comes to meeting their 2020 goals.
“They all have been affected by this, all 25 volunteer corporations have been affected in some means, whether it’s from the stay at home order which has canceled a lot of door-to-door fundraising or if it’s the restrictions on large gatherings that have canceled or postponed other types of fundraisers like carnivals,” Fox said.
Up in smoke
The New Market District Volunteer Fire Company was poised to lose more than $35,000 by the end of the summer, considering the cancelation of several popular events, said Fire Chief Benjamin Nalborczyk. For example, the company hoped to raise between $20,000 and $35,000 alone from a three-day “Volunteer Fireman’s Festival” scheduled from July 30 through Aug. 1. Nalborczyk explained that the carnival-style event would be the first summer carnival held by the company in 26 years.
As of the board’s latest meeting on May 24 — conducted behind face masks and with proper social distancing — those aspirations went up in smoke, Nalborczyk said.
“We saw the sink or swim last Sunday when we realized how much work still needed to be done,” the chief said when reached for comment last Friday. “As far as our fundraising, [the carnival] would have represented about 15 percent of our annual income, but that’s just one of many events that have been lost. We’ve lost a couple thousand dollars in breakfast events and we usually bring in about $7,500 a pop for our [bingo] events. We’re coming up on our third one of those being canceled with no end in sight. ... This has been horrible, this has been the absolute worst.”
While much of the revenue raised by volunteer companies goes toward purchasing new equipment — such as fire engines and other essential items — the funds are also needed to cover payments on buildings, mortgages and equipment maintenance. By December, the county’s volunteer fire companies expect to owe about $1.3 million in capital expenses, such as equipment loans and mortgage payments, according to Fox’s estimates.
So at the same time the Libertytown Volunteer Fire Department was projecting a loss of $125,000 to $150,000 in revenue, it must still find a way to pay its bills and payments to avoid going into default, said Chief Chip Jewell.
“When you look at Libertytown, we have mortgage payments for a building … we just bought in the last year as well as a brand new ambulance and before we knew all this was going to happen we had a $120,000 rehab on one of our older engines to keep it running and update safety features and lighting,” Jewell said.
Meanwhile, the most recent news releases on the company’s website were posts by Jewell announcing cancelations or postponements of various fundraising events, including a golf tournament and a sportsman’s raffle. While no decision had been reached on Libertytown’s annual carnival-style summer fundraiser as of last week, Jewell was not optimistic.
Fundraising by mail may be a viable option, given the current restrictions on gatherings, but even then the revenue would likely fall far short of the gains such a campaign would draw in more normal times, Jewell said.
“A lot of the people that we’ll be mailing to are also suffering, they may have lost their jobs or a large part of their income, so how much can you really expect them to donate in a fundraiser? Everyone is suffering,” Jewell said.
Help on the horizon
Fortunately, relief is likely on the way. After the County Council approved $45 million in the form of a federal CARES Act grant to be added to the county’s budget last week, the county government outlined a plan to allocate roughly $1.9 million to assist volunteer fire and rescue services with certain forms of operational expenses and funding.
Specifically, the CARES Act money will be used to help pay operating expenses for volunteer fire companies, said Rick Harcum, the county’s chief administrative officer, who noted that the federal grant would not be used to replace the companies’ lost revenue due to canceled fundraisers. Still, the assistance will go a long way to shoring up a volunteer fire company’s debts and bills.
“The federal government was crystal clear in that we can’t just write them a check to replace their lost revenue, what we are going to do [instead] is sit down with them and say, ‘Okay, when is your payment due on this fire engine and how much is that payment going to be? Okay, then let’s write a check for that,’” Harcum said. “It’s for building expenses, equipment loans and direct costs associated with the health crisis, so much the same as the county has recently set up a process to help local businesses, we are going to be setting up an application and review process to try to get this cash flowing out as soon as possible.”
So while the county’s volunteer fire companies will need to reckon with historic losses in revenue due to the pandemic, there was hope that a sense of normalcy will one day return.
“We can get through this year because we have some investment funds and we do have a rainy-day fund that will certainly tie us over, but that can only last us for so long,” Jewell said. “So we’re cautiously optimistic. I know the county executive and county staff are looking very closely at the federal money and seeing what can be spent for business interruption recovery, which is what we are, we’re a business, we’re a corporation whose business has been interrupted.”
Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.