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Emmitsburg residents facing
sizeable tax increase

Chris Patterson

Emmitsburg residents are facing a sizeable tax increase to fund paid emergency staff, because the community's ambulance company's service levels are failing.

Failure rates are averaging close to 33 percent and the company is asking for emergency help from the Frederick County Board of Commissioners.

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.

Ambulance Company Chief Jeanette McGuire informed Emmitsburg town commissioners of the problem Monday at the town workshop.

According to statistics compiled for the meeting, the ambulance company failed in nearly 33 percent of its 511 calls between January and July.

Despite support from the town's fire company, Vigilant Hose, increases in the failure rate continue because only a handful of ambulance company volunteers answer calls and those people are working as hard as they can, McGuire said

A chart provided by the company shows only six active members in the all-volunteer company this year, and only three of them are EMTs.

The number of active volunteers has been dropping for years. Town manager Dave Haller noted during the meeting that the town had faced concerns about the declining service rates for about 10 years.

To remedy the problem, McGuire said she has been working with the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Association since May. A letter she wrote to the association, dated May 25, requested two career personnel to staff the station part-time during the week, beginning at the end of the summer. She wrote that the request was being made on "an emergency basis."

Vigilant Hose Company Chief Robert A. Rosensteel Jr. and company Vice President John Damskey wrote a letter supporting McGuire's request at that time, but Rosensteel told the commissioners Monday that he thought the ambulance company needed two staff members 24 hours per day instead of 12 hours per day, five days a week, as the ambulance company recommended.

Emmitsburg is the only town in the county that does not have a fire tax district, except for a small area in Sabillasville. A fire tax district means the residents of the district are taxed at a particular rate to staff the fire companies as needed in their area.

Two career staff members working 12 hours, five days a week - as the ambulance company has requested - would increase Emmitsburg taxpayers' assessments by 6.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Two full-time staffers 24 hours a day, seven days a week would increase taxes by 13.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

At the 6.5 cents rate, the taxes on a $100,000 home would be $65 more a year. The rate of 13.5 cents would more than double that amounts to $135 per year.

Town commissioners, who first learned of the issue on Monday, were reticent to make any recommendations without a public hearing on the matter, but McGuire said she wanted town commissioners to give their support to the request that night. County commissioners are scheduled to hold a hearing on the request on Sept. 2 and will need a recommendation about what to do from the town for that meeting.

The board generally appeared willing to support the ambulance company, but did not want to make a recommendation before hearing comments from town residents.

Commissioner Dianne Walbrecker suggested postponing a decision on what recommendation the town would make until a town hearing could be scheduled, and Commission President Bill O'Neil seconded the motion.

Commissioners Art Elder and Joyce Rosensteel said they thought the board should recommend something on Monday.

Tension grew throughout the night as O'Neil sharply criticized Mayor Hoover for not informing the board about the emergency nature of the matter before the meeting. He made it clear he was upset at Hoover for not advising the board in advance that they would be asked to make a decision that could recommend a tax increase.

One of O'Neil's chief complaints was that the workshop's agenda did not indicate that the issue was so urgent. The agenda, which was displayed on cable channel 99 but not on the town's Web site, read "Emmitsburg Ambulance Co. Ambulance Co. is requesting paid EMTs, this request requires the town's support."

Hoover said he had only heard about the problem a week-and-a-half before the town meeting.

Hoover said in an interview Tuesday that he did not inform the board about the emergency situation because it was not presented to him as an emergency. He said he asked staff to put the issue on the agenda for the soonest possible meeting.

Frederick County Commissioners will make the final decision about whether to provide full- or part-time staff to the Emmitsburg company, with the advice of the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Association.

County Commission Vice President Michael L. Cady (R), who attended the meeting Monday, urged the board to carefully consider its final decision because the county commissioners would weigh the town's recommendation heavily.

After much discussion and testimony by fire and rescue professionals and a few residents, the board set a special emergency public hearing for 6:30 p.m., Monday, in the town meeting room.

The regularly scheduled planning commission meeting will be pushed back to 8 p.m.

The commissioners will take comments at the hearing from residents about what they want done. The board will then vote on the matter and forward their recommendation to the county board of commissioners.

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