New rules needed for fire and ambulance fees

Because it is becoming more difficult to provide fire suppression and emergency medial services during the daytime. the Jefferson County volunteer fire companies are asking for full-time daytime coverage.

The Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency, which oversees the voluntary fire and ambulance companies, has proposed an ordinance to fund its Five-Year Strategic Plan. The ordinance would implement a fire/emergency services fee which is projected to raise $2.9 million a year. At a public meeting earlier this month, a JCESA official projected a 75 percent collection rate. The JCESA-proposed ordinance provides that unpaid fees would be turned over to a collection agency.

However, it has been estimated that JCESA would spend nearly $500,000 a year to collect the unpaid fees, an ineffective use of the fees.

If improvements were funded by the existing property tax, that waste of $500,000 a year could be eliminated. The Eastern Panhandle legislative delegation can sponsor a bill or amendment to allow counties to use the property tax to fund fire suppression and EMS.

At a recent County Commission meeting, a commissioner was jeered for voicing the opinion that the Commission should exercise more control over the volunteer fire companies. At the JCESA Feb. 15, 2011 meeting the vice president responded to a question by stating, “that each (individual fire) department is an individual organization, and that the board is not an authoritative figure.”

According to the March 20, 2012 JCESA meeting minutes, a concerned citizen felt that one of the volunteer fire companies, which receives funds from the County Commission, was being improperly operated and “requested that he be heard in executive session.” The president “informed the concerned citizen that due to the Ethics Act of West Virginia Sunshine Laws, his request must be denied.” The individual “declined to speak in public forum.”

Actually, the West Virginia Code Chapter 6 “Sunshine Law” Article 6-9A-4b -Exceptions states, “An executive session may be held only upon a majority affirmative vote of the members present of the governing body of a public agency.”

It seems the members of JCESA Board were not well versed in their responsibilities nor interested in hearing from concerned citizens whose opinions are that public funds may not being properly administered.

The JCESA Five-Year Strategic Plan, Page 1 states, “A core and critical function of the JCESA is to establish funding priorities among the county’s seven member fire companies and to administer the funding appropriations and allocations afforded through the County Commission’s annual budget and the county’s impact fee program. Receipt of the appropriated annual budget funds is, in part, governed by a service contract that each fire company has with the County Commission. In addition, both financial management and fiscal management agreements have been jointly executed between the JCESA and the seven member fire companies. These agreements respectively establish uniform accounting practices among the JCESA and member fire companies and the criteria and standards through which county funds are to be allocated to each company. As of March 20, 2012 two volunteer fire companies have not even bothered to appoint treasurers.

To date the County Commission and JCESA have failed to fulfill that charge. The volunteer fire companies seem resistant to submitting funding request or implementing a uniform accounting and auditing system. Why should they? The County Commission for Fiscal Year 2012, without any funding requests or uniform fiscal management in place, gave each of the seven companies $61,000! For what purposes and with what accountability? Personally, I am not impressed with $427,000 of public funds being doled out in such a casual manner.

The County Commission should recognize what is happening. We are in the process of transitioning from an all-volunteer to a combination of full-time paid and volunteer personnel and eventually to the use of full-time paid personnel to provide all first response fire suppression and emergency medical services. At some point the all- volunteer companies may be relegated to only providing backup and ambulance transportation services.

As the county grows, the full-time personnel will provide more of the first response for fire suppression and emergency medical services. It’s the correct approach and long overdue. It is more efficient and avoids most of the conflicts that will arise if the County Commission chose to implement the JCESA Five-Year Strategic Plan in the face of the strong resistance of the “powers that be” in the volunteer fire companies.

The better approach would be to initially focus on providing Monday through Friday daytime fire suppression first responder capability by full-time paid personnel to the County’s three Census Bureau designated urbanized clusters — Charles Town-Ranson, Shepherdstown and Shannondale. Plus use full-time paid EMS personnel to provide 24 hour first-responder level with Automatic External Defibrillators capabilities or higher throughout the county. The goal would be to meet the current edition of National Fire Protection Association Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments.

In order to serve on the JCESA or a volunteer fire company’s board, the Commission should require that all board members complete a training course on their responsibilities as board members. Such training should be provided by the County Commission. Any company has the right not to participate in this program, but in doing so forfeits the right to receive county funding.

Starting with fiscal year 2013, the Commission should require JCESA and the volunteer fire companies to provide the County Commission with their budget requests and implement the fiscal management practices contained in the JCESA Five-Year Plan Attachment B. Again the County Commission should require and provide the appropriate training to the board members and treasurers of JCESA and the volunteer fire companies. Any company has the right not to participate in this program, but in doing so forfeits the right to receive county funding.

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