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Is county ready to levy a fire-rescue service fee?

March 31, 2005

The Washington County Commissioners this week directed Director of Emergency Services Joe Kroboth to begin putting together a task force to study creation of a fire and emergency services fee.

Few citizens want to pay another fee, but as Kroboth noted earlier this month, fire and rescue companies are facing a shortage of volunteers, which means they must hire people for certain shifts.

In the past, we took the position that before any new fee was levied, the county government should help the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association run a coordinated countywide fund drive.

If citizens and businesses didn't respond to it, we said, the county government could argue that there was no alternative to a new fee.

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That approach was considered by the previous board of commissioners, but has apparently been abandoned now.

The issue of a fire and rescue fee is a difficult one, for several reasons.

The volunteer companies, whose members have traditionally been independent and resistant to additional controls, know that any new money will come with strings attached.

Other volunteers fear that if people begin paying a tax, the companies' relationship with the public will change as citizens begin to look at fire and rescue response as just one more government function, as opposed to a community service provided by volunteers.

As a stopgap, some companies have begun billing insurance companies for service.

The problem with this approach is that not every insurance policy pays in the same way, and fire and rescue companies must pay someone to do the paperwork. A standard fee would be easier for everyone.

It's hard to dispute the need for more revenue for the fire and rescue system. In 2002, association officials estimated that only 25 percent to 40 percent of households and 10 percent of businesses contribute to fund drives.

The cost of equipment and personnel continues to climb and one key funding source - tip-jar gambling - is being threatened by a bill that would put it under the control of the state, which would no doubt take a share for its expenses.

The bottom line: Washington County is growing, but the number of volunteers isn't. To make sure services that save lives and property are in place, new funding sources must be found.

We urge elected officials to treat whatever the task force comes up with as a serious attempt to solve a problem that is not going to go away.

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