By BRYAN CLARK
CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission today fixed the residential level of its proposed ambulance fee to $40, less than half the amount proposed by the county’s Emergency Services Agency. The commission will vote next week on whether to adopt the proposed fee.
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.
The final amount approved by the commissioners came after some haggling that saw Commissioner Dale 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.
Commissioner Walt, 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.
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.