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Fire tax talks turn to merger of Fire and Ambulance Companies

Chris Patterson

(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 residents.

The options

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 per day.

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 13.5 cents.

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 two operations.

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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