Montgomery County volunteer firefighters signed an agreement with the county on Monday that volunteers say will avoid a repeat of the 2010 ambulance fee referendum and allow the fee to take effect in January.
The county projects that the fee will generate $18 million a year that will go to additional fire and rescue service staffing, training, apparatus, facilities and equipment.
“The bottom line is that the residents here in the county will be served much better because of the enhancements that will be made to the fire and rescue service with this EMS reimbursement,” said Montgomery County Fire Chief Richard Bowers.
With a county fire truck and assembled firefighters as the backdrop, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association President Marcine D. Goodloe signed the agreement Monday afternoon at the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department’s Station 3 on Hungerford Drive.
“We’re going to fund fire and rescue and public safety as a higher priority,” Leggett said.
The agreement calls for Leggett to propose an amendment to the fiscal 2013 budget and future budgets that would put 15 percent of the net revenue from the fee to local fire and rescue departments. The amount would “supplement and not supplant” the current fire and rescue service budget.
The additional revenue will not significantly change other parts of the county’s budget for fiscal 2013, which began July 1, Leggett said.
The agreement also outlines subjects for collective bargaining between the county and volunteer firefighters, including the use of vehicles and facilities owned by local fire and rescue departments, volunteer staffing of apparatus, grants from local departments to government organizations or private entities, and physical and other requirements for volunteer chiefs and operational officers.
The county chief also would work more closely with the volunteer association when proposing policy changes.
Click on the PDF above to read the entire agreement.
The first year of the fee will allow the county to purchase two fire engines, a rescue unit and five ambulances, Leggett said. It will also allow for full staffing for eight engine companies, 13 ladder companies and four rescue squads.
In addition, it will fund facility maintenance and repairs at county- and volunteer-owned stations, the purchase of protective equipment for firefighters, and the replacement of apparatus. It will fund maintenance, utility costs and personnel for the new Travilah fire station, Leggett said. It also will allow the county to train new recruits and add firefighters in order to restore service at stations where service was reduced, he said.
County and the volunteer association will work to ensure that insurance companies will reimburse the county for the cost of an ambulance ride for county residents, officials said. Under the legislation, non-residents will have to pay but could submit bills to their insurance providers for reimbursement. Patients without insurance will be able to file for a waiver from the fee.
The county is exploring whether it could do away with the bill for non-residents, Leggett said.
“We still have concerns about out-of-county residents [paying], and hope to continue to look at the economic concerns, but the improvements that were in this bill are outstanding,” Goodloe said. “And therefore, because we believe this enhancement is going to benefit not only the public but career and volunteer personnel as well, we will not go to referendum.”
The 2010 referendum led to a bitter campaign between volunteers and the county. County leaders accused volunteers of spreading misinformation and telling county residents that they—and not their insurance companies—would have to pick up the $400 to $800 tab for medical transport. Volunteers sued the county, alleging that on-duty fire and rescue workers were used to campaign in favor of the fee. The suit was dismissed.
Volunteer firefighters chose not to go forward with a referendum campaign that they thought would not be in the best interest of county residents, Goodloe said.
Volunteers, in addition to their own jobs, serve 50 to 60 hours a week with the fire and rescue service, she said.
“To go out and begin collecting signatures again is a chore,” she said.
Asked if he was concerned that voters would not get a second chance to vote on the fee, Leggett said: “Not at all.”
Leggett said that the negative impact from the failure of the 2010 referendum that he had predicted had come to pass, including cuts to libraries and employee benefits and other areas of the county budget.
Leggett said the additional revenue generated by the fee is important for the county at a time when it will have to shoulder the burden of “what could very well be more than $400 million over 10 years in state teacher pension costs." The Maryland General Assembly in May approved a 50-50 split of teacher pension costs between the state and county governments.
Leggett said the agreement was forged because both sides were able to step back from the debate that raged in the lead up to the 2010 ballot question.
“I think that we are a better county as a result of that debate,” he said. “We were able to resolve some issues that I think needed to be resolved and to put us in a position both financially and operationally for the long-term.”
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