Too-low rate will hurt volunteer companies, critics tell commission
CHARLES TOWN – The head of the county’s Fire and Rescue Association said Jefferson County’s volunteer fire system might actually be worse off following the passage of an ambulance fee by the County Commission late last week.
[cleeng_content id="292209085" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]FRA President Ron Fletcher said the companies have seen declines in donations by as much as 25 percent since the public discussion began.
He said he worries the cumulative decrease could hit 40 percent before donations level off.
“There’s not going to be any extra funds coming in for the volunteer fire system,” he said, noting that adding paid staff will mean increased, uncovered costs for the volunteer companies. “The Emergency Services Agency
will get extra personnel who will go inside the stations, which is a good thing. But there’s nothing to help support them,” he said. “They’re basically living [in the station] for that day, and we’re not getting anything extra to help subsidize that cost as well as running our own operations.”
After nearly a decade of discussion and development, the County Commission voted Thursday week to impose a fee on the county’s households and businesses to staff firehouses with paid emergency medical services personnel.
The amount of the fee became an issue of contentious debate however, and in the end its two strongest backers – Commissioners Dale Manuel and Lyn Widmyer – lodged protest votes against it, while the three commissioners who had been more critical of the fee – Commissioners Patsy Noland, Walt Pellish and Jane Tabb – supported its passage.
Starting in July 2014, most households will pay $40 per year and all businesses, regardless of size, will pay $80 per year. Households eligible for the homestead exemption will pay $20.
The Fire and Rescue Association, which represents local volunteer fire departments, blasted the $40 level in an open letter, saying that it would be insufficient to fully pay for the nine full-time paramedics and EMTs that are to be stationed in firehouses. Emergency Services Agency officials were also highly critical of the fee level.
Critics of the fee, on the other hand, have accused the ESA of “padding” its proposed budget to support a higher fee level. They argue the ESA is spending unnecessary dollars on administrative overhead, rather than on paying for EMS personnel.
Ahead o fhte commission’s vote, ESA Director Doug Pittinger warned that imposing a $40 fee “could be the start of the demise of the EMS system in Jefferson County,” likening it to “placing a Band-Aid on an uncontrollable traumatic hemorrhage injury, only to see it fail to correct the problem.”
ESA board member Brenda Engle called the $40 figure “arbitrary,” saying it was “pulled out of the hat by one commissioner at the meeting.”
Tabb said her constituents were concerned that the commission was raising taxes during difficult economic times. “I hear from the folks who say, ‘I can’t believe you’re putting another tax on us,’” she said, explaining that she felt it was necessary to have a fee, but that it ought to be as small as practicable.
Pellish rebutted the claim that the $40 figure was arbitrary, arguing that the $40 figure was based on a simple calculation.
“The action that we took last week to arrive at the $40 number was solely to fund paramedical people in the field,” he said. “That was based on a pretty simple calculation that said a $40 fee would get us more than enough dollars to fund those nine people.”
Noland said the ESA’s proposed $85 fee went far beyond what was necessary.
“It’s not fiscally responsible. How can we expect our citizens to pay $85 dollars for these services when we don’t need that much?” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
The proposed fee found opponents in area attorneys Robert Aitcheson and Douglas Rockwell, who in a document they presented to the commission called the proposed budget “blatantly padded.”
They noted that the budget included $3,240 for gym memberships for the new hires, who are required to maintain fitness standards. They also argued that the ESA had used an inflated projection in calculating their workers compensation expenses, and that they had shifted from proposing to hire three paramedics, who earn higher wages than EMTs, to proposing to hire six paramedics.
Manuel said the commission should listen to first responders who were “all singing out of the same hymnal.” Alluding to Aitcheson and Rockwell, Manuel asked: “Who you going to listen to? A couple lawyers or the people who are providing the service?”
Manuel said that references to “padding” in the proposed fee were misplaced. He said funds raised over and above that required to fund the nine EMS personnel were meant to help increase the resources that the county distributes to volunteer fire companies to help underwrite ambulance services.
But Pellish argued that supplementing those funds would require not an ambulance fee but a fire fee, the approval of which involves a large petition and referendum process.
“The dollars that we are talking about with this ordinance are for ambulance fees only. Period. The fire companies need money. The Association is absolutely correct in what they are saying,” he said. “Not one penny of that could have been used for fire fees, for fire departments, for fire equipment. We are not permitted to do that based on what is on the table.”
“I will fully support the fire companies pursuing and initiating an effort to get a fire fee. I will be behind it 100 percent,” Pellish added.
Manuel said the commission could supplement its payments to the departments as long as they ensured that those funds were used for EMS rather than fire service.
Widmyer said she did not think the fee would cover salaries, benefits and other expenses for the nine proposed positions five years down the road.
“I don’t want to come back to this every year,” she said. “We have created an unsustainable fee.”
Pellish said he did not think the county ought to set a current fee rate to cover the expected costs five years from now.
“It is the right number for year one,” he said. “I’m not gonna worry about year five at this point. It’s too far down the road.”
Widmyer also argued that the commission had hidden some costs associated with the fee by deciding to pay for the collection work out of the general budget, rather than dedicating funds raised through the fee itself.
“We’re going to add staff to collect the fee that we didn’t put under the ambulance fee,” she said. “Taxpayers should know that they’re still going to pay it.”
Manuel agreed, saying: “I don’t understand why we’re going to take on two additional employees that are probably going to cost us $120,000 in the budget.”
Pellish shot back, arguing that integrating collection of the fee into the existing tax department would be more efficient than assembling a new collections infrastructure.
While Fletcher worried that donations could continue to fall with passage of the ambulance fee, he said he did not believe the level of service the volunteers provide to the county will decline.
Ed Hannon, deputy director of the ESA, said his organization views passage of the fee as a mixed bag.
“We were disappointed, on the one hand, that it did not meet the needs of the original plan,” he said. “On the other hand, we were thankful that some progress has been made in this eight-year project.”
Hannon says he is not sure whether the ESA will be able to hire all nine proposed personnel or not.
“We can’t determine how many people to hire until we have concrete figures,” he said. “A lot will depend on next year’s budget. If the county were to reduce the amount that they give [the ESA] in our budget, comparable to what the fee raises, then we’re going to at best be able to keep the services where they are.”
He added that he anticipates that it will be very hard to raise the fee in the future as costs increase.
Marty Freeman, an ESA board member and former budget analyst, said she thinks the commission was optimistic about the number of people who will pay the fee.
“Berkeley County started out at about 70 percent [successful collection], and we can’t imagine that we’ll do any better than that,” she said, adding that she speculates the rate could be as low as 50 percent until county residents get used to paying the fee.
“Once you start putting it through the collections process, that goes up and you get around 90 percent,” she added, though she noted that that process involves either expensive proceedings in magistrate court or hiring a collections agency which could charge up to 50 percent to collect delinquent fees.
She guesses the fee will raise only around $600,000 in its first year, significantly less than the roughly $800,000 needed to pay for the staffing.
Under an optimal scenario, the ESA will begin to hire the staff in mid-2015, Freeman said.