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Emergency staff could leave $300K hole
in County budget

Chris Patterson

Frederick County is going to supply two full-time career emergency services staffers to the Emmitsburg area to make up for staffing deficiencies at the Emmitsburg Ambulance Company, but the help is only temporary and could lead to revenue shortfalls, according to a county budget analyst.

County senior budget analyst Mike Gastley said Tuesday that he advised the Frederick Board of County Commissioners last week that due to the largely rural nature of the area, the taxes collected at the regular rates the county charges could leave the county in the hole by more than $300,000.

The request for emergency assistance from the county started with a request by ambulance company Chief Jeannette McGuire, and was supported publicly in Emmitsburg town meetings by the company president Joe Pelkey and the president of Vigilant Hose Company Robert Rosensteel.

The ambulance company has failed to dispatch emergency services within eight minutes -- a mark the county considers failing -- on more than one-third of their calls since the beginning of 2004. The county's standard requires no more than a 10 percent failure in the response rate.

Currently, all the communities that receive full-time service pay 13.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value as a "fire tax." If in the next four months the county holds hearings and decides to implement the full-time staffers permanently, the 13.5 cents tax charged to Emmitsburg will not pay for those positions.

In fact, Gastley said, the shortage in tax revenue could mean as much as $314,000 shortfall per year.

Gastley stressed that the county would not be in the hole, however, because fire tax income from the other full-time communities would balance things out.

However, if more companies also go to using full-time career staff, the county could go in the hole.

Commission President John "Lennie" Thompson (R) of Walkersville said that means the county could consider setting up an independent fire tax district for the Emmitsburg region, but the rate would be far higher than 13.5 cents.

Emmitsburg Commissioner Bill O'Neil watched the meeting on television, heard 20 cents per $100 talked about, and said that was "absolutely outrageous."

Noting that 13 percent of Emmitsburg residents are at poverty level, according to the 2000 Census, and that the town already pays 36 cent per $100 of assessed value property tax for the city, in addition to county taxes, the increase would be debilitating to many residents.

"I'm truly worried about the people who are going to fall into the cracks in this process," O'Neil said. "We shouldn't put [the residents] in the hospital worrying about how they will pay for their tax bill or whether they should buy food or medicine."

At an emergency town meeting on Aug. 30, the town's board voted to encourage the county commissioners to follow the Emmitsburg Ambulance Company's recommendation for providing two staffers five days a week for 12 hours a day, and letting the company's volunteers handle the evening and weekend calls.

Mayor Jim Hoover and Commissioner Dianne Walbrecker opposed that plan, but Walbrecker eventually voted to support the part-time recommendation proposed by O'Neil.

Hoover said he is pleased the county went with the full-time staffers for now. He said the town's board put "finances ahead of public safety" but hopes that county public hearings down the road will determine what is best for the area.

Hoover said the plan to provide two full-time staffers to Vigilant Hose Company -- the community's fire company -- and make that company the first responders is a good one. It will give the ambulance company, which will now be a second responder, a chance to get its service rates up and work on staffing issues.

Read other news stories related to the Emmitsburg Town Government