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Residents are critical of proposed ambulance fee increase

February 24, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Several Berkeley County residents at a public hearing Thursday night were critical of a proposed $15 increase in a special "household" fee that supports the operation of Berkeley County's emergency ambulance service.

The fee charged to homeowners would increase from $50 to $65 if approved by the Berkeley County Council. It would be the first increase since 2006.

"Let me assure you that I have not taken this request for an increase lightly," Charles R. Hall, president of the Ambulance Authority board told, about 35 people gathered for the hearing held in Berkeley County Council chambers.

"My board has agonized over it," Hall said.

Several of the residents who were critical of the proposed increase noted they are on fixed incomes and have seen no increase in Social Security benefits for three years.

"If I could get a 15 percent increase in my Social Security, I'll give it to them," said Melvin Dodson, questioning the timing of the proposed fee increase amid a recession.

"People on fixed incomes are going to be in dire need of money. They're going to have to do without something else to pay for an ambulance," Rick Fadely said.

Others questioned whether the county was doing enough to collect from people who have failed to pay the fee.

In a PowerPoint presentation, Hall said he was open to suggestions about how to collect fees that are not being paid. Hall said there were more than 4,700 unpaid accounts that were being pursued by a private collection agency, which nets about one-third of the money collected.

As a landlord, Linda Caplinger said she doesn't feel she should have to pay the household fee on behalf of her tenants.

"I try to keep my rents as low as I can because a lot of my tenants (are) on disability and they're retired," Caplinger said.

"I cannot continue to keep their rents down when I got to keep paying these kinds of bills for them and I cannot collect these bills from them. I'm lucky to get my rent from them every month," Caplinger said.

Caplinger said she felt that anyone who uses the ambulance service should have to pay a fee, rather than charge people who have not used it.

The increase is proposed to go into effect July 1 and is projected to increase revenue by about $450,000, according to Hall.

William R. "Bob" Parks said the fee should be attached to individuals' personal property tax bills to force people to pay the bill or lose their ability to drive.

As a landlord, he also objected to paying the fees on behalf of tenants.

Ila Smith said the fee increase proposed amounts to a penalty for the people who have been willing to pay at the expense of those who don't.

Ambulance Authority program manager Gary Collis said efforts to get the state lawmakers to give the county more "teeth" for fee collection have not been successful.

Hall said a recent donation of two ambulances by Powerball jackpot winner and former county sheriff and magistrate W. Randy Smith has eased demands on the aging fleet for the short term, but didn't solve the problem. The Ambulance Authority hasn't purchased an ambulance since 2008, and demands for service are expected to continue to grow, Hall said. The agency handled about 5,000 transports last year, Hall said.

The fee increase is essential to maintaining the existing level of service, Hall said. In addition to about $1.4 million in household fees, the Ambulance Authority collected about $1.3 million in transport fees as part of a budget to pay about 30 full-time and 25 part-time EMTs and five administration staff. Last year, the agency spent about $3.1 million and almost 80 percent of that was for personnel as part of an effort to maintain a competitive compensation program, Hall said.

After the hearing, Hall said a household fee increase could theoretically be spread out over more than one year, but that had not been done before.

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