$1.6M fire fee would add nine positions

CHARLES TOWN – Area volunteer fire companies and the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency are asking the County Commission to implement a fire fee that they say will help responders improve service times that are well below national standards.

Ed Hannon, deputy director of the JCESA, told the Jefferson County Commission that county emergency medical services responders had seen a 22 percent increase in call volume between fiscal years 2011 and 2012, leaving area emergency officials struggling to keep up with calls.

Hannon said that 62 percent of EMS responses in the county last year took 10 or more minutes. The national standard is eight minutes, he said.

The JCESA hopes to meet rising demands and cut response times by nearly doubling its current staffing level, hiring an additional nine staff members. This expansion will require a budget increase of $1,672,102, officials say. With county budgets tightening, the JCESA hopes the county will implement a system of fees on local residences and businesses to pay for the budget increase.

Hannon said the fee would also help to ensure that the county could quickly deploy all 11 of its ambulances, should the need arise.

“The main thing the fee is intended to do is to enhance our capacity for service delivery,” Hannon said. “It would enable us to do both fire and EMS response throughout the day.

“All fire service in Jefferson County is volunteer – 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.

To provide additional aid to local volunteer fire companies, they also hope to train all their staff to serve as both firefighters and EMS providers, he said.

“During the day, Monday through Friday, the volunteers are having an increasingly tough time getting the trucks out. The chiefs are asking us for dual-certified people in their stations, and that’s what the fire fee will do.”

Ronald Fletcher, president of the Jefferson County Fire Association, said local fire departments would be greatly aided by the introduction of paid staff during daytime hours, when most volunteers are at work.

“What we need is paid staffing into the departments to help during the day or other rough times because we are not always there,” Fletcher said. “Some days it is hard for the volunteer stations to get out, and we need people in the stations to get those units out.”

Fletcher said one of the most important things would be that the paid JCESA staffers are certified to drive a variety of station vehicles, in order to ensure that volunteers would not be held up waiting for a certified driver.

“Sometimes drivers are hard to come by because the drivers training program is a pretty long process,” Fletcher said. “There are situations where people show up but there is no driver available.”

Fletcher noted that more paid staff than the number proposed would be necessary to completely ensure a functioning system. “There needs to be at least two [in a station]. That way you’re not sending someone out by themselves,” he said.

The JCESA provided the commission with a draft ordinance for the fire fee, which outlines a schedule of yearly commercial and residential fee levels based on the square footage of the building in question.

The proposed residential fee would range from $55 to $85 per annum, with the commercial fee ranging from $115 to $2,220. Only three businesses in the county – Hollywood Casino, Potomac Marketplace, and the Clarion in Shepherdstown – are large enough to fall into the highest fee category.

Several funding alternatives were also provided as options. Each would cut the total contribution from the county by some amount and make up the difference with a higher fire fee. Under the most extreme of these scenarios – in which the county might cut all funding from JCESA and funded it solely with a fire fee – the residential fees could range from $155 to $185, the commercial fees from $215 to $2320.

Fletcher said the Fire Association has not yet been able to review and give feedback on the specific fire fee proposals JCESA presented to the commission.

Commissioner Dale Manuel noted tight budget constraints this year, saying that plans for expansion were almost entirely dependent on the passage of a fire fee.

“The additional personnel we are talking about are only going to happen if we can put a fire fee into effect,” Manuel. “There’s not money in the current budget to have this kind of increase in the JCESA’s budget this year. So we’re basically putting all our hope in a fire fee going through [the Commission] to be able to provide the additional manpower, to reduce response times.”

“We would want to look at the fee amounts, what the fee entails, how it is broken down before we agree with anything, to be honest. That’s where the fire companies are,” he said.

Commissioner Lyn Widmyer argued that the imposition of a fire fee should also involve the elimination of fire and EMS impact fees.

In a subsequent interview, Hannon said he did not think the increase in calls was the result of the activation of Middleway Volunteer Fire Department’s ambulance in mid-2011, because most ambulance responses in their service area were served by other Jefferson County units before that time.

He said the causes of the increase are unclear, but noted increases in both drug-related incidents and mental hygiene cases.

“I don’t know if it’s that tourism was up – more people attending the track – or that people moving into the county have more medical needs than previously,” Hannon said. “And it’s across the board – motor vehicle accidents, overdoses, respiratory and cardiac emergencies, the whole gamut.”

Hannon told commissioners that Jefferson Memorial Hospital had experienced a 30 percent increase, but official numbers from the hospital show that the emergency room in fact saw only a 2 percent increase in volume from calendar years 2011 to 2012, though they did see a 21.5 percent increase from 2010 to 2011 for a grand total of 23.5 percent.

Commissioner Jane Tabb told fire officials that action on a fire fee is not imminent. “We still have several months of public hearings,” Tabb said. “We have legal to go over it. It is not going to happen quickly.”

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