Ambulance fee on hold

Pellish: Ordinance ‘not ready for prime time’

CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission once again tabled a proposed ambulance fee that had been scheduled for a vote last week, with Commissioner Walt Pellish, citing uncertainties over the nature, size and use of funds collected, declaring again that the ordinance was “not ready for prime time.”

[cleeng_content id="135175764" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Area volunteer fire companies and the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency have been pushing for approval of a fee – originally conceived to cover both fire and ambulance services – to provide paid staff at local fire houses.

They have warned for several years that, with volunteerism flagging and the county’s population increasing, it is becoming more and more difficult to respond in a timely fashion to emergency situations.

Commissioner Dale Manuel, who serves as commission liaison to the JCESA, lamented the long delays that have prevented the ordinance’s passage.

Walt Pellish

Walt Pellish

“I’ve seen tortoises that move faster than us,” he said. “This has been an eight-year process … Five tortoises passed me yesterday.”

Middleway Fire Chief Mike Mood spoke in favor of the proposed fee.

“Our call volume is going up, and we need help,” he said “The county tax dollars are going down. You can’t afford to keep giving more and more to the fire companies. You’ve got to move on. You’ve got to come up with a fee structure. This plan is a good plan.”

JCESA board president Pete Kelly expressed similar sentiments.

“We need this program,” he said. “I hear about money. I hear about people. But what we need to look at is the service to the community. Life-saving situations are time-critical in many situations. If you do not have the people, then you can wind up with a serious situation.”

Local attorneys Douglas Rockwell and Robert Aitcheson, persistent critics of the proposed fee and the JCESA, argued that there were insurmountable problems with the ordinance as it was being proposed.

Rockwell called the proposal to pass a new ordinance quickly a “rush to madness,” and argued it violates state law.

“There is no question in my mind as to whether the ordinance, as drafted, complies with state law,” he said. “The law does impose a duty upon the county commission to cause an emergency ambulance service to be made available to the residents of the county, but it goes on to state that you may enact an emergency ambulance fee to be imposed on and collected from the users of the emergency ambulance service.”

Rockwell said it was important to note that state-enabling legislation referred to “not maybe users, but users.”

“The Legislature intended that it was the transporting patient that was to be charged a fee,” he said. “Your present agency is collecting a user fee.”

Resident Peter Onoszko said he did not find that interpretation convincing.

“Something that needs to be clarified, without being too Clintonesque, is the term ‘user,’” he said. “I would consider myself to be a user of the Sheriff’s Department whether or not I ever report a break in… Just the mere fact that they’re there and I’m paying for them makes me a user.”

Rockwell argued the commission had not been presented with information sufficient to determine an appropriate fee structure.

“You’re going to be asked … to search for a dollar figure, and whatever dollar figure you come up with, you are going to have to have justification for [it],” he said. “Or are you just going to set a purse out here and let the agency spend what they want of it in however they choose?”

Aitcheson accused the JCESA of insufficient forethought concerning the size of the fee, characterizing their attitude as “let’s get money and worry what we are going to do with it later.”

He also argued that fire departments and the JCESA were not united in their support for the proposed fee. “You’ve got a raging turf battle going on between the agency, the [JCESA], and the fire departments,” he said.

Mood, who also serves on the JCESA’s board, dismissed that accusation as “spin.”

“Attorneys are good at spin,” he said. “Is there a ‘raging turf battle’ between the fire companies and the ESA? No there is not. The ESA is overseeing some of the finances and the operation of the EMS side of the fire companies. That’s new to them. Are there some stumbling blocks in that process? Absolutely. But is it a ‘raging turf battle?’ No.”

Aitcheson said the county should consider an alternative to the fee – eliminating the JCESA and directly employing paramedics to be placed in local fire stations.

“If you gut the JCESA,” he argued, “you eliminate $80,000 or $100,000 in mortgage payments, a couple hundred thousand dollars at least in administrative costs, and you provide … four people to the fire departments out of the seven that they say they need. Out of the savings you have … you hire three more paramedics or EMTs.”

Mood spoke against that option, arguing that JCESA assistance has helped the volunteer departments to provide timely emergency medical services, adding that his department had been called out 50 percent more often than they had expected.

“[Middleway Fire Department] started out trying to do it ourselves without ESA staffing,” he said. “We were able to do it for about eight months, and then we had to go with ESA staffing. It has been such a benefit to us. The staffing you’ve got there ensures that, with our people, we can get almost every time a … crew out during the day when our staffing is low. That is remarkable.”

Commissioner Patsy Noland expressed support for the notion of a fee, but said she had been given insufficient information about how the funds raised would be put to use.

“How is that money going to be spent? What will be the expenditures, and where is the budget for that amount?” she asked. “I want to support this fee. I want to support putting paramedics and emergency medical technicians in the fire departments… I am willing to do that, and I am willing to do that today. But I have to justify to those people that I represent all across the county what that money is going to be used for.”

Commissioner Jane Tabb echoed her sentiments, saying, “Everybody who is renting is going to have their rent raised to cover this fee. We’ve got to make sure that it is used for exactly what the ordinance says it is for so there is no waste.”

JCESA board member Marty Freeman said that the original proposed emergency services fee – which would have covered both fire and EMS services – would have raised $1.6 million. Once it was discovered it would have violated state law to impose a combined fire and EMS fee, she said, she deducted the $343,000 that would have been used to pay for fire service and recalculated the fee to raise $1.3 million.

Around $200,000 of the funds raised, she said, would go to pay administrative costs.

She argued that the fee should be between $65 and $85, and that the level of service provided would be somewhat dependent on the size of the fee.

But, as Pellish pointed out, the recalculated fee structure had not taken into account an amendment approved by the commission, which would reduce the ambulance fee by 50 percent for elderly homeowners who are eligible for the homestead exemption.

“What the hell is it based on?” he asked. “What is the reason for $65? Nobody in this room can give me a reason for it.”

Pellish said the ambulance fee had been hastily reworked from a combined emergency services fee without sufficient care.

“In my opinion, we are sitting here at the 11th hour playing word games, trying to change a system that doesn’t work,” he said. “This whole thing has been going on for years and has been geared toward fire and EMS.

“We can’t do it unless we do it right. The only thing we can do by law is we can put in an ambulance fee,” he said. “I promise you there’s 10 lawsuits out there waiting in the wing.”

Pellish argued that the commission should attempt to go through the Legislature or through the petition and ballot measure procedure necessary to implement a fire fee.

“If it means getting people off their duffs to go out and get the 10 percent [of the county’s] signatures then that’s what we gotta do,” he said. “If it means going to the Legislature, then that’s what we need to do.”

Commissioner Lyn Widmyer worried that using those measures could cause dangerous delays.

“I don’t disagree. We started out with a combined fee, and that was a good thought,” she said. “I am absolutely convinced that we need a fee now, and that if we wait for the state Legislature to give us permission to do a joint fee, the risks are far more than the gains… It’ll be years.”

Manuel said the need for timely imposition of a fee has been made greater by the county’s budget crunch.

“We’re aware that last year we spent $1 million more than we took in,” he said. “We’re aware that we have a document here, and we are looking at cuts of approximately 5 percent to each one of the contiguous units: Development Authority, ESA, Parks and Rec.”

“If you take out 5 percent, you’re taking out personnel. You’re cutting response times. That’s what is going to happen,” he said. “One of the ways we have to meet this challenge is an ambulance fee.”[/cleeng_content]

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