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CHARLES TOWN – Jefferson County Commission President Walt Pellish laid out a proposal Monday for a radical overhaul of the county’s emergency services system, which will be the topic of a special meeting of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency on March 5.
Saying it was time for “bold new thinking” and warning that “there is going to be pain involved,” Pellish called for volunteer fire companies to share half of the revenue they receive from billing insurance companies for ambulance transport with the JCESA, which would then distribute funds as needed.
The county has little power to mandate the actions of volunteer fire companies, since they are organized as independent, nonprofit corporations.
Pellish has proposed a consequence for not following along with the revenue sharing proposal: withdrawal of county funding.
“If [revenue sharing] is rejected, I am suggesting to my fellow commissioners that we reduce the contribution by $1 million, i.e. the amount of insurance fees collected,” he said. “If [revenue sharing] is rejected, JCESA will work with the new board to distribute [County Commission] distributions on an as-needed basis.”
Representatives of the Fire and Rescue Association could not be reached by press time.
County Financial Director Tim Stanton said that, without revenue sharing, the “business model” of the JCESA had “failed.”
“The problem is that 60 percent of the time when the ambulance rolls out of the fire houses, it is staffed by a JCESA member. The county residents pay for that staff member through their taxes,” he said. “But when the fire companies bill out the insurances, they keep 100 percent of that money.”
A total of $900,000 to a $1 million per year are drawn in by the volunteer fire departments in ambulance billings, Stanton said.
The proposal would also drastically change the composition of the board that oversees the JCESA – which currently has 13 board members including a County Commission representative, citizens and representatives of fire and EMS services.
Under Pellish’s proposal the board would be cut to five people – one representing fire, one representing EMS and three other citizens.
“I think the board is overstaffed,” he said. “I think it is too much focused on being run by the fire departments.”
Pellish also called for two JCESA staff positions, the office manager and budget manager, to be eliminated.
He said the county should immediately begin the process of gathering signatures to place a fire fee on the ballot to help pay for paid fire staff.
“We need a fire fee,” he said. “We need to start the petition process, and I don’t know why there has been a reluctance to get it going.”
Fire companies have said that the long process of imposing an ambulance fee hurt donations, and that going through another, more extensive process to implement a fire fee would cause them to decline further.
Pellish said these concerns are misplaced, saying that donors are committed to the fire companies and will continue to give, even with a fire fee.
Until the process goes through, he argued, some of the more wealthy fire companies should go into their investment reserves to fund operations.
“The big guys have some reserves out there, and they’ve got to – for an interim time – treat that as a rainy day fund and go into those reserves in the coming year to support their needs,” he said. “Once we get a fire fee, this will all go away.”
County Financial Director Tim Stanton said after reviewing IRS filings by the various fire companies, he had concluded that the fire system as a whole is more flush than county government.
“The sum of the cash in investments of those fire departments are $7,596,000 — much more than this county government,” he told the commissioners. “The fire departments as a whole are much more healthy financially than this county, but we give them $427,000 a year.”
Commissioner Dale Manuel pointed out that the savings accumulated by some fire departments can be deceiving, since they are often saving up for periodic replacement of extremely expensive equipment like fire engines.