— Ambulance fee fallout continues to impact Jefferson County—from the inside out.
The turmoil surrounding the Jefferson County Commission’s decision to lower the County’s $40 residential ambulance fee has escalated, as Chris Conroy, the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency (JCESA), has resigned — citing the decision to lower the fee as an “act of malfeasance” on the part of the Commission.
Conroy, who has served on the JCESA for the past four and a half years, submitted his resignation on May 16, with an effective date of July 1. His professional career in fire, rescue, and emergency services spans more than 40 years.
In his resignation letter to the County Commission, Conroy wrote: “Your latest action in reducing the ambulance fee under the auspice of transferring money from the limited general funds available, reinforces my concern that you know little of governing and are not concerned with the safety of our citizens or our first responders.”
Conroy further charged that the new majority on the Commission is only interested “ … in placating a special interest group that represents a minority of individuals in the County.”
The decision to lower the fee has been spearheaded by appointed commissioner Peter Onoszko (R-Harpers Ferry), and new commissioners Josh Compton (R-Charles Town) and Caleb Hudson (R-Shepherdstown), none of whom have any prior experience in county government. Onoszko was appointed to the Commission following Eric Bell’s resignation, and will face voters in 2018. Compton and Hudson were both elected in 2016 for six-year terms.
In his letter of resignation, Conroy acknowledged the diametric shift at the Commission. “I no longer have the confidence that the majority of you are committed to providing the minimum funding and support necessary to meet the current challenges faced by the Agency and volunteer fire departments in Jefferson County.”
Actions and Reactions
During numerous public hearings and meetings, members of the emergency services community voiced opposition to the lowering of the fee. Commissioners Jane Tabb (R-Middleway) and Patsy Noland (D-Kabletown) each opposed the measure. Both are in their second terms on the Commission, and Noland is a former magistrate and circuit clerk.
Onoszko, Compton, and Hudson believe the reduced income from the ambulance fee should be made up from the County’s general revenue account. However, that same account is continuing to see declining income.
Noland expressed concern over the proposed action to dip into the general revenue account and cited a presentation at the June 1 Commission meeting in which Michelle Gordon, the County’s finance director, revealed that the 2018 budget might need to be revisited.
“Jail fees have increased significantly due to the arrests being made that are related to the opioid epidemic, and gaming revenues continue to decline,” said Noland. “As the result of the downward trend in revenue, it is anticipated that commissioners will have to make significant adjustments to the 2018 budget.”
Tabb called the ambulance fee a “ … dedicated revenue stream for staffing salaries, fringe benefits, equipment, and training.” She believes the built-in funds serve as a recruiting and retention tool, demonstrating to potential and present employees of the JCESA that there is stability and potential advancement.
“Current employees are looking at other job opportunities with the uncertainties in future funding,” Tabb said. She further believes the retention of trained staff reduces the overall cost to the JCESA of medical examinations, additional equipment, and training.
Under the leadership of Conroy, Tabb said the JCESA Board “… has worked diligently to maximize every ambulance fee dollar. With a new work schedule and dedicated employees, overtime has been slashed to one percent—an amazing record that is hard to beat.”
Tabb and Noland both tipped their hats to the dedication of the entire JCESA organization, with Tabb highlighting the reduced response time over the past year.
“While call volume has increased five percent in the past year, response time has been reduced by one minute. This is a phenomenal achievement,” she pointed out.
In concluding his resignation letter, Conroy lauded the achievements of the JCESA, but expressed grave concern for the future of the organization in light of the Commission’s decision to reduce the fee.
“Having spent the majority of my adult life working in the fire service, protecting and aiding the citizens I served, while also being concerned with the safety of my fellow first responders, I will not be a party to this act of malfeasance that could further harm our citizens and first responders.”
According to Noland, the Commission may examine the ambulance fee paid by businesses in the near future.By H.S. Leigh Koonce