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Sharpsburg EMS follow - The future, tax?

December 28, 1997

Sharpsburg EMS follow - The future, tax?

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

The Sharpsburg rescue squad has made steady progress toward rebuilding after internal division and declining membership pushed it to the brink of collapse earlier this year, but some officials wonder whether long-term restructuring is needed to ensure it maintains service.

The Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association placed the ambulance company on probation in July because the number of active emergency medical technicians had dwindled below the minimum of 10 required by the county.

At the same time, longtime Chief Larry Myers took a leave of absence and returned only to resign for good. Bill Myers, president of the company, has spent the last several weeks trying to reorganize the leadership of the department and recruit new members.

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Myers said about 20 people have filled out applications to volunteer at the company.

"The applications are doing much better than expected," he said.

Even during the height of the company's troubles, Myers said the community was never in danger and that the squad has not failed to respond to an emergency "for a long time."

"We're still giving people excellent services, I believe," he said.

Still, some officials have criticized the personality disputes they say have contributed to the company's problems and others have questioned the community's commitment.

Brigitte Heller, who chairs the fire and rescue association's EMS committee, said she turned down an offer to work as a paid staff member after sensing a lack of commitment to turning the company around.

Heller said she volunteered numerous hours trying to help the department revise its bylaws.

"You've got to have a choir if you're going to be a director," she said in an interview earlier this month. "I honestly don't believe they have the energy to make that station viable."

Heller also criticized former rescue squad members who have left in recent months.

"They jumped ship when the going got rough," she said.

But Bill Myers said the company has made great strides this month. While the department still needs all the help it can get, he said it has filled its officer positions, begun the long task of reorganizing and lured back members who had dropped out.

Myers also said the company has been reworking its bylaws to improve the operation.

"That's a drawn-out process to do something like that," he said.

Problems elsewhere

Sharpsburg faces the same problems that are increasingly challenging many smaller communities, according to experts in the field. It has been difficult to find people who have the time and inclination to endure the vast hours of training necessary to gain certification on a rescue squad.

"The volunteerism has been declining. As much as we've tried to encourage it, the hard facts are there are not enough people," said Richard "Dick" Mettetal, Region II EMS administrator for the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

The dilemma for Sharpsburg and other companies is that hiring full-time medics is a costly proposition. Many companies cannot afford to pay for personnel from the money that receive from donations and the county's gambling tax.

During its recent crisis, the Sharpsburg company has been paying for medics to cover the station around the clock. But Myers said the department's money is quickly running out.

"It's getting to be economically unfeasible right now. We're not broke, but if we keep it up, we're going to be," he said.

Mettetal suggested that a special tax may be necessary in places like Sharpsburg.

"Most people hate taxes, but it might be the town that has to pay that," he said. "You don't see the police holding banquets and bingo."

Frederick County, which has faced similar problems, began phasing in taxes in 1989.

Andy Marsh, director of the county's fire/rescue operations, said nine of the 27 fire and rescue stations in Frederick County are supported by a tax. That represents about 70 percent of the assessable land, he said.

Under the system, a company can apply to the County Commissioners to set up a taxing district. Property owners within the district pay an additional property tax to support personnel or equipment, Marsh said.

Marsh said the tax was created because rescue units in Frederick were not responding to calls outside the city. The county decided to merge the fire and rescue services into one unit.

Marsh also said smaller communities were having trouble supplying enough volunteers.

Marsh said some officials in Frederick County have suggested scrapping the taxing districts and setting up a uniform taxing system throughout the county. He said the county initially opted for districts in order to preserve the volunteer system as much as possible.

Either way, however, "One of the problems is many people think they will never need the services," he said. "It can be an emotional issue."

Changes looming

Several officials said changes are imminent in Washington County. A consultant who is studying fire and rescue services in the county is due to issue recommendations early next year.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said elected leaders must make changes to ensure the viability of rural departments.

"I think that's going to happen sooner than later," he said.

Bowers said he opposes setting up individual taxing districts like Frederick because the areas most in need have smaller tax bases. He said he thinks the county can set up a system without raising taxes.

Commissioner James R. Wade said he thinks some form of tax probably will be necessary. But he said he thinks the only people who would oppose it are those who do not contribute to fire and rescue companies now.

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