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Emergency Services had asked county for twice as much
CHARLES TOWN – A long-anticipated ambulance fee requested by the county’s Emergency Services Agency has been set at $40, less than half the amount proposed by the agency.
The move drew the ire of local volunteer fire chiefs, who say the total funds raised by the fee will be insufficient for departments to maintain reliable emergency medical services in the county.
The JCESA had sought to get a fee approved in the amount of $85, but presented the commission with a detailed budget outlining seven possible fee levels ranging from $85 to $45, along with the a breakdown of how the monies raised would be spent.
Included in the spending were salaries and benefits to cover nine dual-trained medical responders and firefighters and two administrative staff to collect the proposed fee, along with funds to purchase the collections infrastructure needed. Also included were funds for equipping and training the nine responders and to purchase a new chase vehicle.
Commissioner Walt Pellish raised a concern, previously expressed by critics of the fee, that the fee charged to all households comes on top of “user fees” already charged to a patient transported in an ambulance.
“Nowhere in this report do you report on … user fees,” he told ESA Director Doug Pittinger. “If somebody needs an ambulance, they get charged. You guys have revenues coming in. I don’t see you accounting for that anywhere in here.”
“The six volunteer fire companies that provide EMS service in this county … do bill you for services rendered,” Pittinger said, adding that the fee had netted the companies over $900,000 in 2011. “They keep 100 percent of that revenue.”
Pittinger said those funds were used at the discretion of the departments, but added that they have large expenses related to providing EMS services, including buying, maintaining and replacing equipment.
“I’m not going to be satisfied by anything until I see how those funds are being used,” Pellish said. “If we’re charging for ambulance use and the money is going somewhere else, we’ve got a problem.”
Commissioner Dale Manuel said that he did not think it was within the ESA’s or the commission’s authority to demand an accounting of those funds.
“Volunteer fire companies are corporations,” he said. “You cannot break the corporate veil to get the information we are asking for.”
“I don’t know that I can demand that information from a volunteer fire company,” he said.
Commissioner Lyn Widmyer said it made sense that the volunteer companies would collect and keep user fees.
“The ambulance situation, of course, is that the fire companies own the ambulances,” Widmyer said. “If they’re making the runs, there is a logic to me that they would get that fee. Otherwise you would have to centralize the ambulances and this budget would go right out the roof.”
Pellish dismissed the arguments against disclosure of funds collected through user fees.
“Nonsense,” he said. “If you’re going to continue asking us for money, you’d better tell us what that money is going to be spent for because what we’re now being asked to do is go to the citizens of this county and say, ‘We’re putting in an ambulance fee.’ And the first thing somebody does is raise their hand and say, ‘Why? If I use one I’ve gotta pay for it.’ And we need to have an answer as to what those monies are being used for.”
The final amount approved by the commissioners came after some haggling that saw Manuel move to set the fee at $60, and then at $55 with both motions failing in 2-3 votes with only Commissioner Lyn Widmyer siding with Manuel.
Pellish, on the other hand, said he was willing only to fund salaries and benefits for the new hires, and suggested $30 would be a more appropriate figure.
“I’m willing to pay … for the nine operating people. That’s a critical need out there. Potentially, lives are at stake,” Pellish said. “I’m not willing to go beyond that.”
Commissioner Jane Tabb agreed, saying, “Our taxpayers… don’t want to pay for a padded budget.”
After Manuel’s second motion failed, Pellish moved for a $40 fee, saying that would be sufficient to cover the salaries and benefits of the new responders. His motion passed 3-2, with both Widmyer and Manuel opposing it; Manuel called the $40 rate, “really the wrong way to go.”
Ronald Fletcher, president of the Fire and Rescue Association, said the county’s volunteer fire department were highly disappointed in the move.
“Forty dollars a year is a low expense for people, but the service you are going to be getting is just too low,” Fletcher said. “The volunteer stations are going to suffer. Their funding is going to be cut down. Our donations are going to go down. They’ve already seen a decrease in donations over the last five years.”
Fletcher said many companies had already seen donations decreasing over the last five years, adding that part of the reason for the decline is the proposed fire fee.
“People are anticipating a fee, and that is why we’ve seen donations go down,” he said. “We knew that was coming, but the fee was supposed to be a lot more to help offset those costs.
“Right now, some stations have seen a 30 percent cut, and some may even see a 50 or 60 percent cut in donations,” he said, adding that he expects the County Commission’s contribution to the companies to decline as well, given the county’s budget straits. “That number was supposed to increase, but I’m sure in a couple of weeks we’re going to see a decrease in this year’s budget.”
Fletcher said a higher fee level would have helped the county’s fire companies offset these financial difficulties, but that a $40 fee would be insufficient. He said setting the fee at such a low rate undervalues the services provided by local volunteer fire companies.
“That level is in no way going to fund what is supposed to be going on,” he said.