— Local EMS representatives labor to balance staffing needs against budget cuts.
For those of us who have followed Jefferson County politics over the past ten years or more, it comes as a surprise to find the latest hot-button debate not circulating around impact fees, residential growth, economic development, or even education. Rather, the Jefferson County Commission has engaged in heated discussions about the funding of fire and emergency services — a lifesaving network many take for granted.
Jefferson County maintains seven volunteer fire houses, plus the central office of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency (JCESA). While JCESA does employ administrative staff and a few career service members, the backbone of the fire and emergency services is its volunteer force.
“Although Jefferson County now has paid medical staff/firefighters during peak hours, volunteers are still volunteering, and they continue to be an essential component to fulfill the life- and property-saving missions of each fire department,” said Patsy Noland, one of five County Commissioners and a former magistrate and circuit clerk. “They are a dedicated bunch of men and women that continue to give selflessly to their respective communities.”
Even with the diligence of the volunteer force, Denise Pouget, director of JCESA, believes her agency will need to expand soon. “The JCESA and the fire departments agree that we need additional staffing because of increasing emergency call demand,” she said. “Our call load is increasing rapidly from year to year.”
The budget for 2017, passed in 2016, included money to hire three new full-time staff members within JCESA, according to Pouget. Citizens Fire Company, which serves Charles Town and surrounding areas, alone averages approximately 1,300 emergency calls a year and operates with about 50 members. Nearly all of these members are volunteers who donate their time and energy to ensure their community is well served.
The Independent Fire Company, in Ranson, receives even more calls, averaging approximately 2,000 a year. Friendship Volunteer Fire Company, in Bolivar, takes about 650 calls a year. Also operating in the County are the Shepherdstown Volunteer Fire Department, the oldest fire department in the state of West Virginia; the Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Department; the Middleway Volunteer Fire Department; and the Bakerton Volunteer Fire Department, which also responds to all water-related emergencies in the County—in addition to the normal fire and rescue calls.
An Evolving Agency
Jane Tabb has watched the evolution of the JCESA during her two terms on the County Commission. “What started out as an ambulance authority has transitioned into the JCESA when Senate Bill 224 was enacted in April 2008,” she explained. “This allowed the JCESA to perform both emergency medical and fire services.” She noted, however, that it didn’t happen immediately. “Our volunteers do a fabulous job of providing the huge capital expenses of land, buildings, utilities, and equipment, but they have asked for help with staffing. With lifestyle changes and a large commuter population, volunteers are in short supply and are available at limited times.”
Tabb said when the ambulance fee was adopted in 2014, “… it specifically called for dual-trained staffing”—thereby providing personnel to fight fires as well as perform EMS duties. “This is a staffing model that is spreading nationally as the most cost-effective and efficient manner to provide emergency services.”
A reliable funding source has been available since the ambulance fee was enacted. Michelle Gordon, the finance director for Jefferson County, said $757,370 was collected in the last fiscal year, and $786,570 the year prior.
Tabb added, “The beauty of the ambulance fee is that it can only be used for staffing, training, and gear. It provides a steady revenue stream to support salaries, which is critical to employee retention, and fills our current critical need in supplying the fastest response to our citizens.”
The cross-training and addition of new hires produced “… a reduction in response time” to calls for service, said Tabb. She believes response times will continue to decrease with additional staffing.
But three recent additions to the County Commission spent much of the budget cycle lamenting the imposition of the current ambulance fee. Commission President Peter Onoszko, who was appointed to the Commission rather than elected, and 2016 victors Josh Compton and Caleb Hudson, collectively introduced and supported a five-dollar reduction to the fee. The current budget cycle was the first for the three, who have never before served in county government.
While Gordon, the finance director, voiced concern at the budget meetings about pulling money from the County’s general revenue fund to make up the shortfall generated from a reduced ambulance fee, it was passed anyway — with Tabb and Noland opposing the move.
“Not one West Virginia county supports their emergency services entirely from their general revenue,” said Tabb. “The reality of declining gambling revenue and slowly rising property values means County general revenue cannot support the increased demands for service from JCESA.”
An Ambulance is Not a $600 Toilet Seat
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan began a major expansion of the United States military, which famously saw, as discovered by the Project on Government Oversight, the Pentagon spend $435 for a hammer and $600 for a toilet seat—among many other overpriced, unmonitored purchases. While the new majority on the Jefferson County Commission wishes to reduce government waste, the staff and reliable infrastructure for the county’s emergency services certainly doesn’t equal the Pentagon’s lavish habits of the Cold War era.
That said, according to Michelle Gordon, the total budget for Jefferson County’s government in the coming fiscal year is $23,786,950. Of the nearly $24 million, JCESA receives about 10 percent ($2,662,402), while the fire departments will receive $665,000.
To put this funding into context, the National Fire Protection Association reports that the average cost of an equipped ambulance in the United States can be around $250,000. An equipped fire engine can easily be twice that. Keeping these costs in mind, the necessity of the ambulance fee and the robust volunteer fundraising programs the fire departments undertake is clearly visible. Equipment alone can easily eat up the allocations from the county.
The Bottom Line
As Jefferson County continues to see an uptick in calls for emergency services, additional staffing and resources will certainly be needed. “It’s needed to reduce response time,” sadi Tabb. “It has improved, but there is room for additional improvement, which can mean the difference between life and death.”
If the County Commission continues to reduce the ambulance fee by five dollars a year, as they wish to do, more money will be needed from the general revenue fund to make up the short fall. Yet, as revenue from the video lottery fund decreases and the collection of property taxes remains static or slowly increases, something will have to give.
Perhaps the County Commission will cut funding elsewhere to make up the short fall. Commissioner Josh Compton favored cutting the staff of the Jefferson County Parks and Recreation Department and reducing funding to the public libraries, as recently voiced at a Commission meeting.
It remains to be seen how such additional cuts would benefit Jefferson County in the long run.
—Editor’s Note: In an effort to flesh out a more investigative line on the impact of the ambulance fee reduction on local fire departments and emergency service workers — and thus produce a more intimate analysis of this hot-button issue — over a dozen people directly connected to the issue were asked to go on record (including all Jefferson County fire chiefs, as well as multiple volunteers). All of them declined to comment.
Perhaps a future story within the story could examine the reasons why such a county-wide refusal seems to be the safe play. How spooked are local fire departments by the Commission’s fee reduction and its potential to influence budget reductions next year? Spooked enough to remain silent? It’s a question worth considering. And certainly worth discussing.By H.S. Leigh Koonce