Fire tax talks
turn to merger of Fire and Ambulance Companies
(11/11/2004) A public
hearing Tuesday with the Frederick Board of County
Commissioners about a proposed tax for emergency services in
the Emmitsburg area opened the possibility of merging the
local fire and ambulance companies.
No decision was made, however, despite
hours of testimony and discussion.
Held at Mother Seton School in
Emmitsburg, the public hearing allowed commissioners to hear
from Emmitsburg area residents about instituting a "fire and
rescue tax district."
The district would increase property
taxes to fund career emergency services staff in the community
as a supplement to the local volunteers.
About halfway into the meeting,
Vigilant Hose Company's Public Information Officer Wayne
Powell introduced the idea of a merger of the fire company
with Emmitsburg Ambulance Company. Powell said the fire
company has asked to meet with ambulance company leaders about
the idea, but no meetings have yet occurred.
Failures lead to dilemma
It was Emmitsburg Ambulance Company's
failing service rates that ultimately led the company's former
Chief Jeanette McGuire to make a plea for emergency aid to the
Frederick County Fire and Rescue Association in May.
In August, she met with the Emmitsburg
Board of Commissioners and advised them that the company was
experiencing failure rates close to 33 percent. Frederick
County defines a "failure" as any call that is not responded
to within eight minutes. A 10 percent failure rate is the
maximum permitted in the county.
McGuire presented statistics showing
that the ambulance company failed in nearly 33 percent of its
511 calls between January and July. An additional chart showed
only six active members in the all-volunteer company at the
time, and only three of them were EMTs.
At a meeting in early September, a
majority of Frederick County commissioners agreed that
deteriorating service levels at the ambulance company
warranted immediate intervention. They voted to temporarily
fund two staff members for Vigilant Hose Company on an
emergency basis, which made them the first responders for
emergency medical services and, they said, would give the
ambulance company an opportunity to regroup.
A permanent decision leading any tax
increase requires a public hearing with advertised notice to
There are two possible types of
special districts with two different costs that could be
implemented to fund additional staff.
A suburban tax district would cost
taxpayers about 6.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value
each year. For that cost, the community would receive two
paid, career staff for five days per week and about 12 hours
The second possibility is an urban tax
district rate of 13.5 cents per $100 of assessed property
value. Two career staff would be placed in the community 24
hours a day, seven days a week with that plan.
The tax will not cover the costs of
the staffers, however.
County senior budget analyst Mike
Gastley advised the commissioners in September that due to the
largely rural nature of the area, the taxes collected could be
as much as $300,000 less than was needed to cover the costs.
That deficit led County commission
President John "Lennie" Thompson Jr. (R) to speculate that the
county could consider setting up an independent fire tax
district for the Emmitsburg region with a rate far higher than
Majority support 24/7 coverage
Of the roughly 150 people at the
meeting Tuesday, about 30 rose to express their views. And of
those who expressed a preference, most supported the urban,
24-hour, seven-day-a-week support for the community.
Comments such as those made by area
resident Beverly Adams who supported the full-time personnel
were echoed throughout the meeting.
"I don't want to pay more taxes.
Nobody does," she said. "However when you are dealing with
human life, the term 'failed response time' cannot be a part
of our vocabulary."
Beth Persinger, imitating a well-known
credit card commercial, listed the costs of services such as
cable, cell phones or a Caribbean vacation and then said that
"knowing that trained professionals are available 24 hours a
day to help someone you love" is priceless.
Janet Hoyle told of how her husband
had been treated by emergency services personnel when he had a
heart attack before living in Emmitsburg. She questioned
whether her husband would have survived had the attack
occurred in Emmitsburg during this crisis.
"When that elephant is sitting on your
chest, every minute seems like an hour," she said.
A few residents expressed concerns
about the tax, which would be particularly difficult for
senior citizens and others on fixed incomes, they said.
Ambulance Company President Joe Pelkey
reiterated the company's previously stated position that
part-time support was all that was necessary. He said the
company has a new chief, which has improved communication and
participation. There are now 26 EMTs with 15 being "very
active," he said.
New ambulance Chief Rich Sharer
agreed, adding that the number of active volunteers continues
to increase regularly since the change in command.
Sharer said after the meeting that the
ambulance company was definitely not in favor of merging the
More meetings scheduled
After additional questioning of a few
speakers, the county commissioners voted to suspend a decision
until their regular meeting at 7 p.m., Nov. 30.
At that time a decision will be
rendered and no further public comment will be accepted. The
decision must be made by that time in order for the county
staff to implement the tax billing in time for the next cycle.
In the interim, the commissioners
agreed to hold another public workshop at 7 p.m., Tuesday,
with representatives of the fire and rescue companies as well
as from the county Department of Emergency Services.
The workshop will be held to hear more
about the idea of a merger, hear directly from the fire and
rescue companies, and to consider recommendations made by
county staff about what would be in the best interests of the
region. Further testimony from the public may also be taken.
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