Jefferson County fire departments and Emergency Services Agency will have to tighten their belts in the upcoming fiscal year as the Jefferson County Commission proposed cuts of 20 percent to the ESA and 12.5 percent to the fire allocations.
The vote for cuts came Friday at a Commission budget meeting after the group heard from the Emergency Services Agency Board and representatives from the fire companies at an hours-long meeting last Wednesday.
The meeting, a special one called by the ESA, came in response to a list of proposed ways to address fire and EMS issues put forth by Commission President Walt Pellish. In the list, Pellish called for an immediate change to the make up of the ESA board, something the county must do through ordinance revision. Pellish also called for a 50/50 split in ambulance fee revenue sharing between the volunteer companies and the paid county agency. A call for the fire companies to help initiate a petition of residents to institute a fire fee was also on the list as well as reducing the ESA staff by two administrative positions.
To start of the meeting, Pellish commended all of the fire and rescue workers. He said the purpose of his list and the meeting was to get dialog started between all of the agencies to come to a reasonable fiscally sound decision.
"We are here because of a budget crisis," he said. He went on to say his hopes for the discussion were to reach a goal of starting a petition for the fire fee as well as recognize the need for revenue sharing.
Ed Boober, who was serving as the leader of the ESA for the evening, used Pellish's proposals as an organizational tool for discussion.
The first item of changing the make up of the board of the ESA to include only five individuals with one from fire, one from EMS and three citizen representatives was questioned by many in the room. There was a consensus that committees made up of board members would suffer. The need for individuals who are knowledgeable in the fire and EMS fields was also stressed.
"It would be non-productive to put non expert citizens on the board to make decisions regarding emergency services," opined Chris Higdon, Friendship Fire Company.
The commission heard many possible scenarios for the board make up with the ESA finally voting to recommend a make up of two fire, two EMS and three at large citizen representatives. The final decision would fall on the County Commission who would have to go through the process of an ordinance change.
The discussion of revenue sharing contributed to much discussion of the evening. Volunteer departments voiced their opinions that their companies should keep the revenue billed to insurance when it is their equipment that is running the calls. While paid EMTs or medics do come on the calls, that was the intent of the creation of paid personnel.
ESA board member John Considine suggested a type of formula should be created based on such things as the composition of the staff responding and where the ambulance is housed that responds.
Commissioner Jane Tabb voiced her opposition to revenue sharing saying that the volunteers don't always get what they bill insurance for. Dale Manuel suggested a contract system should be put in place between the volunteers and the paid agency.
Aaron Watson, with Independent Fire Company, told commissioners that their profit for an ambulance call after billing insurance usually comes to about $15.
"That money helps pay for the fire service," Watson said. "We get no billing for that." He went on to say that the volunteer companies in the county provide upwards of $20 million dollars of service to the county at no cost to taxpayers.
Denny Barron at Shepherdstown echoed Watson's thoughts saying his company operates as one, fire and ambulance.
"Without the ambulance fees we couldn't provide fire service," he said.
Higdon shared "real numbers" from Friendship Fire saying that in 2013, there were 420 ambulance calls run from the Harpers Ferry station. Of those, 181 were all volunteer; 208 were collaborative and only31 were ESA.
"ESA is doing their job supplementing the volunteers," Higdon said. "Don't take our money."
The discussion of a fire fee would not help the current budget crisis, but would possible bring revenue for future budgets. Pellish continued to push for help in getting a petition going of registered voters. Ten percent of approximately 3,300 signatures would be required for the County Commission to establish such a fee.
The discussion of reduction in positions at the ESA had Director Doug Pittinger saying that if administrative positions are cut, someone at the county level will have to pick up that work.
ESA Board president Alan Williams said that with the proposed 20 percent cut from county funding, the ESA will likely see reduction in paid medics and EMT personnel as well.
"If the county wants paid staff in all of the stations rather than staff at Station 11 (the ESA headquarters), it would mean increasing staff to about 14 to get that done." Currently there are paid providers in six of the seven stations in the county. Medics are housed at Shepherdstown, Independent and the ESA while EMTs are at Blue Ridge, Friendship and Middleway.
Williams said that putting paid people into each station and closing Station 11 and selling off their vehicles which include two ambulances (one not fully equipped) and three chase 'buggies' (with all equipment but unable to transport), would be fiscally irresponsible.
The ESA will meet Tuesday to discuss how to deal with the proposed cuts from the county. It will also be up to that board how the allocated funds to fire departments are dispersed.