CHARLES TOWN – A proposal to overhaul the county’s emergency services system took its first tentative steps toward implementation last week, despite the reservation of county firefighters still cool to the idea.
The Jefferson County Commission voted Thursday to cut the size of the board of the county Emergency Services Agency to six individuals – one representing fire companies, one representing their EMS services, one county commissioner and three at-large citizen representatives.
[cleeng_content id="497790182" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Commissioner Walt Pellish, who proposed the reorganization of the ESA, said the current board, which is composed of 11 members, was “not optimum to get things done” and was “driven too much by the fire companies.”
The JCESA’s current board had endorsed shrinking the board to seven members, retaining a majority position for fire companies on the board. They hoped the board would be composed of two fire representatives, two EMS representatives and three at-large citizens.
No action has been taken yet on one of the most controversial proposals in Pellish’s seven-point proposal – pressuring volunteer fire companies to share the revenue they receive from billing patients’ insurance policies for ambulance transport with the JCESA.
Pellish originally proposed that the county withdraw $1 million in annual funding for the fire companies if they refused to agree, but volunteer fire companies have pushed back against the proposal, arguing that the commission has been given an inaccurate picture of EMS billing as a major source of profits.
Aaron Watson, president of Independent Fire Co., said statements indicating that the county’s fire companies bring in $900,000 annually from EMS billing “misconstrued” the true situation because they did not take into account the cost of running the calls.
“We profit roughly around $15 a call. No one was given that number,” he told commissioners, adding that less than 10 percent of their total revenue from EMS billing was actual profit. “You were presented false numbers.”
“If you were to take 50 percent before costs are paid, we could not operate ambulance services at all,” he said. “That money also pays for fire service.”
Chris Higdon, president of Friendship Fire Co., indicated that his company has lost money on ambulance calls in each of the last three years. He said that of the calls running out of his station less than 10 percent were solely staffed by JCESA members.
“In my opinion, JCESA is doing their job,” he said. “They were supposed to supplement us, that’s what they get their operating budget for.”
JCESA board member Bob Aitcheson said he supported the move, calling it “a bold step in the right direction.”
“The way its being done now is the most inefficient way for it to be done,” he said. “Trying to have a mixed county and volunteer fire department EMS service is the most inefficient way to do it. There’s duplication,” Aitcheson said to heckling at last week’s meeting.
No other member of the board voted to support revenue sharing.
Mike Mood, chief of Middleway Volunteer Fire Company and a JCESA board member, said asking the companies to share 50 percent of their EMS revenue would bankrupt many of the fire companies.
“It’s very easy to look at [IRS records] and say that $900,000 is being collected by the volunteers,” he said. “The volunteers [have] about 85 percent in costs, so out of the $900,000, with 50 percent coming back to the ESA, you are putting the ambulance companies out of business. That’s not a threat. It’s a fact.”
Pellish has also proposed that work begin quickly on gathering the signatures needed to implement a fire fee.
“There are not revenues available to fund what everyone would like,” he said. “The economy has been down for a number of years. We’ve seen a decrease in what comes out of the casino and its operation, and so we are faced with a shortfall of dollars.
“We need a fire fee. We need it badly. That is the long-term solution to adequately funding the firefighters,” he said.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Groh told the commission the county will need to add a fire board in addition to the JCESA in order to implement a fire fee.
Commissioner Dale Manuel said he too thought the county ought to implement a fire fee at a rate that would help the fire companies.
“If I were in the companies here, I would want a commitment of how much money the fire fee is going to be,” he said. “It is no secret that I felt like the $40 was insufficient … Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Fire and Rescue Association President Josh Smith said his group would support a fee, but they hoped the County Commission would spearhead the effort to gather signatures. The group has expressed fear in the past that moving forward with a fee will cause donations to their organizations to fall.
Former president Ronald Fletcher said he too was worried that the effort to pass a fire fee would be a repeat of the effort to pass an ambulance fee: an extended process that resulted in a fee that was too low to meet their needs.
“I don’t think it should be such a long, drawn-out process like it has been over the past eight years,” he said. “When we did the ambulance fee, we presented the numbers but [the County Commission] picked the amount.”
Commissioners have also long expressed the desire to split the funds they distribute to the fire companies based on need, with more money going to departments that are unable to raise enough money from donations.
Smith said his group continues to advocate that the funds be split evenly.
“The fire departments agree to stand strong, and we would like our $61,000 to be split evenly, as it has been in the past,” he said. “You can’t justify the slowest department getting more money when the busier departments in Charles Town need their money to keep operating their 800 calls a year.”