CHARLES TOWN – A co-author of an ordinance that would have allowed for the collection by West Virginia counties of a joint fire and ambulance fee to pay both firefighters and EMTs could not be defended in court.
[cleeng_content id="122745828" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]During the first of three readings last week of the proposed emergency services fee, Jefferson County Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Grove, told county commissioners that she had helped draft legislation that would support a joint fee but it was rewritten by legislators before being passed.
“The legislative history is the bill that (Assistant Prosecutor) Brandy Sims and I drafted, which expressly provided for an emergency services fee, — it expressly said you can collect a joint fee — volunteer fire departments from around the (state) opposed that bill because it applied to all counties,” she said. “They changed our wording completely. I just don’t think there is any way to defend a joint fee at this time. It is unfortunate and a little frustrating.
Grove told commissioners since there was no case law attached to the ordinance, its legislative history would be considered.
“You’re going to end up in court,” she said. “Even if you win in court, it is going to be appealed to the Supreme Court, and it is probably going to be one to two years before you collect any money for the provision of emergency services.”
Advising the commission that the fee could only be collected for the purpose of providing ambulance services, Grove argued that the paid staff of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency, whose salaries will be paid by the fee, could do dual service as firefighters nonetheless.
“It is the policy of the ESA to have the employees that they hire certified both as emergency medical and as firefighters,” Grove said. “That’s good for two reasons. It gets us over a pesky overtime issue because firefighters are allowed more overtime before they get time and a half. However, most of the calls in the county – over 70 percent of the calls – are EMS-related.
“It is just going to expand that service so that we have paid people to cover all the time,” she said.
Commissioner Walt Pellish, who has expressed reservations with previous draft ordinances, said the news was the last straw for him.
“I have come to this conclusion: this is dead in the water by me. I cannot and I will not support it,” he said. “What we are really after, and have been after since day one is … a combined ambulance and fire fee. Every budget that you have put together, every fee structure has been based on that concept.”
Pellish argued the commission should seek changes to the enabling legislation during the next legislative session rather than move forward under current law.
Commissioner Dale Manuel argued that seeking changes in the Legislature would push action off years into the future, potentially leaving the county without adequate emergency services.
“I’ve been to the Legislature. I was there for 16 years,” Manuel said. “It’s not just like, ‘Well, I’m going to pass a bill.’ That never happens. It is just not that way.
“One of the factors is our budget coming up next year,” Manuel said. “Our budget – if we don’t have some relief – we’re going to have a very difficult, lean budget to the point where there are going to be some cuts, I believe. It’s this or nothing. Nothing is pretty bad.”
But Manuel expressed his own reservations with the ordinance that had been presented, which caps the fees that may be assessed on a commercial property at $1,000.
“I think that under the Constitution of the United States, that is not fair and equitable taxation,” he said. “You are shifting the burden onto the people that live in the little white houses with the picket fence. That’s where you’re shifting the burden: onto the residential.”
Grove told the commission that it could cap fees on commercial properties as long as it states a compelling government reason for the policy.
The second reading of the proposed ordinance is set for Thursday. Commissioners will have the opportunity to propose and vote on amendments.