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County approves fire tax to pay for full-time career emergency personnel

Chris Patterson

The Frederick County Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday to provide full-time career emergency medical technicians in the Emmitsburg region and create a new fire and rescue tax district to pay for it.

Property owners in the new district will begin paying 13.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value for the enhanced emergency services beginning Jan. 1. For that increase, the community will receive two career emergency service workers 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

Both the Emmitsburg Ambulance Company and the Vigilant Hose Company, the community's fire service, will continue as separate and independent emergency-service organizations.

In an agreement forged between the two companies on Nov. 21, the ambulance company agreed to support the request for full-time staffers.

Originally, the ambulance company's leadership fought only to receive part-time support, contending that changes in their management would yield improved service results.

A failed service call by Frederick County standards is one in which the company does not respond within eight minutes of receiving the call. A 10 percent failure rate is the maximum allowed.

Records reported by the ambulance company indicated it was failing its service standards in about 1 of 3 calls through the first half of the year.

Because of the dramatic fail rate, the fire company argued full-time support was needed and proposed a merger of the two organizations.

The ambulance company strongly opposed that proposal.

Clarence E. "Chip" Jewell, director of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services, worked with the two organizations to iron out the agreement and presented the major points of agreement to the commissioners this week.

One of the provisions of the agreement is that a council will be created with representation from each company, the Emmitsburg Board of Commissioners, and from fire and rescue services.

That council will work together "to help oversee operations and provide input on emergency services-related issues in the community," according to a letter Jewell sent to the commissioners detailing the agreement.

The agreement also provides that a non-voting member of each company will sit on the board of the other company.

Though Vigilant Hose is currently responding first to emergency calls in the area, the agreement also provides that the ambulance company will respond first when there is adequate staff manning their station.

The agreement is to run from Jan. 1 until Dec. 31, 2005, or until the ambulance company's new facility is completed ­ whichever is longest.

County Commissioner John R. Lovell (R) said it was the strong desire expressed by the community to have full-time service that motivated him to support establishing the new district.

He said he saw that strong support at the public hearing of the county commissioners on Nov. 9 in Emmitsburg.

At that time, almost all of the people who spoke favored full-time coverage in the town.

"It's never a good thing to increase people's taxes," he said, "but it is a good thing to provide continuing rescue service and safety of life for a community and not to put them in jeopardy."

County Commission President John "Lennie" Thompson Jr. (R) did not support the tax because he is concerned that the usual tax rate of 13.5 cents for full-time services will not support the cost of the services.

At the first county meeting on the matter in September, county senior budget analyst Mike Gastley told The Gazette that because the area is largely rural, taxing at the regular rate could leave the county in the hole by more than $300,000.

He told the commissioners Tuesday that even including revenue from insurance billing, the shortfall would be about $180,000 per year.

The rate would have to be about 19 or 20 cents for the full-time services to cover the shortfall, he said.

Commission Vice President Michael L. Cady (R) said he thought the rate could remain as-is because the revenue from the county's various fire districts balance out with some districts paying more than is needed and some paying less.

Emmitsburg would not be the only area not paying for itself, he noted.

Ultimately, Commissioner Jan H. Gardner (D) moved to approve the tax district; commissioners Cady, Lovell and Bruce L. Reeder (D) voted for it, with Thompson voting against it.

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