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bob maginnis 12/3/00

December 01, 2000

Funding fire/rescue service: Voluntary plan will get a try



By Bob Maginnis


The current funding flap involving the City of Hagerstown and Community Rescue Service got me wondering what's happened with consultant study of Washington County's fire/rescue service.

The $90,000 study was delivered to the county in June of 1998 and though it was more than 300 pages long, it didn't answer the key questions, like whether paid personnel should be hired or whether there should be a fire tax.

The commissioners asked for a revision from Carroll Buracker and Associates of Harrisonburg, Va., which was delivered in October 1999 and which did recommend a fire tax, although it didn't say how much the tax should be.

At that point the revised report was sent to a 15-member Emergency Services Council for a review that was supposed to be completed by February of this year.

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It's coming, says committee member Bert Iseminger, a Washington County Commissioner who's the panel's liaison to the county board, but from what he said, it's unlikely to provide immediate relief for CRS.

Iseminger said that one difficulty in figuring out funding strategy has been that the fire/rescue association is made up of a lot of companies, some that run a great number of calls and some that run far less.

As noted by J. Michael Nye, interim director of Community Rescue Service, a 1 percent shift in a small company's budget could significantly impair its ability to provide service, which is why CRS is seeking new money as opposed to a redistribution of the existing pool of cash.

Based on Iseminger's account of the committee's work to date, Nye's probably going to get his wish, although not in time for Christmas.

Iseminger said the group has tentatively decided that the distribution of most funding sources - like the gaming commission dollars and the cash the county gives to companies directly - won't change.

What will change, Iseminger said, is new phased-in funding from the county based on a company's use of fuel, electricity and heat.

"That will, in effect, factor in those companies that run a lot more calls," Iseminger said.

Each company also has obtained standardized computer software for budgeting purposes, Iseminger said, adding that they'll all get any help they need from the county's Finance Department.

That would make meaningful comparisons between companies easier and pave the way for things like bulk purchasing.

But the committee's key recommendation will be to have all companies hold their fund drives at the same time. Iseminger said the county-wide campaign would include an effort to educate citizens on things like the cost of a piece of fire apparatus and how much training is involved before a firefighter or a paramedic can answer that first call.

And here's the kicker: Iseminger says that citizens will be told that if voluntary contributions aren't forthcoming, then the county will have to consider other revenue-raising measures.

It's similar to a suggestion I made in my column of March 18, 1999. If the voluntary approach works, fine, I said. If it doesn't, the commissioners can impose a fire tax, since the fund drive's failure would demonstrate that just asking for money didn't work.

I predict it will be easier to get donations from ordinary citizens than some businesses, particularly the large chains that are headquartered elsewhere. If a fire tax is required, they'll pay it as part of the cost of doing business. Without a requirement, however, the fire/rescue companies' requests compete with those of every other charity.

What no one has broached yet is how much control the individual companies would have to give up if a fire tax were their main source of funds. Anyone who believes that the county commissioners would just hand over the proceeds without a review of budgets and companies' performance is kidding themselves.

We are part of an aging population which, at times goes on, will need more of what these companies, especially the rescue squads, have to offer. At the same time, there are fewer workers available to do such a jobs.

Nostalgia for the days when the volunteers did everything is great. The sacrifices they made to get the fire/rescue service this far should be honored and remembered, especially because such sacrifices are unlikely to be duplicated on the same scale again.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail Company.

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