Washington Co. faces nearly $1M increase in emergency services costs

March 13, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • Washington County Director of Emergency Services Kevin Lewis and Robert Moncrief, a vice president of the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, speak to the Washington County Board of Commissioners Tuesday during a review of the emergency services budget.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Costs for volunteer fire and rescue services are rising dramatically while gaming revenue is decreasing, leaving county taxpayers to pick up more of the tab, officials said Tuesday during a budget presentation before the Washington County Board of Commissioners.

Rising costs for emergency-responder physicals, workers compensation, insurance and equipment testing, along with additional subsidies for paid medical personnel, are among the major factors driving the increase, according to budget documents.

Overall, the county is facing an increase of almost a million dollars in emergency services costs for the next fiscal year, with more than half of it slated to go toward volunteer fire and rescue services, according to a budget draft.

Among other rising costs, the county is being asked to contribute $258,350 from its general fund to the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, the budget draft shows.

This year, the association did not receive any general fund money, relying only on gaming revenue and savings.

The association receives half of the amount in each year’s gaming fund — a portion of tip-jar proceeds turned over by taverns, restaurants and private clubs in the county — some of which it uses for its own budget and the rest it distributes to the volunteer companies.

For the next fiscal year, which beings on July 1, the association is budgeting for about $7,000 less in gaming revenue and no use of savings, while seeking a county contribution to make up the difference.

The presentation Tuesday also marked the first time in at least four years that the association has presented its operating budget to the commissioners as part of the public budget review process.

The association is expecting a roughly 50 percent increase in expenses from this fiscal year to the next, according to its proposed budget. In fiscal 2012, the association’s budget was $286,150; for fiscal 2013, it is $432,000, an increase of $145,850.

A large part of the increase — $65,000 — is to comply with Maryland Occupational Safety and Health standards for physical exams for emergency responders, the budget draft said. The standard calls for exams every year for responders 40 and older; every other year for those between 30 and 39; and every three years for those under 30.

“The chiefs are very leery about their legal liability if they don’t follow this,” Robert Moncrief, an association vice president, told the commissioners.

The association is also facing $42,900 in new costs for Maryland Department of Transportation-mandated testing of ladders, pumps and self-contained breathing apparatus, the budget said.

It is also requesting $20,000 to buy 60 winter coats for fire police. The coats are waterproof and certified against blood-borne pathogens.

“We have applied for several grants but have been unsuccessful in obtaining funds for this request,” the budget request said.

A breakdown provided by the association said that 81 percent of its budget would support member companies through physicals, training, a rehab unit and other services.

Another 9 percent would go to public education such as fire-safety demonstrations, public-service announcements and a training program for high school students interested in careers in emergency services.

The other 10 percent of the association budget would cover the association’s administrative costs, such as its office, vehicles, accounting and computer support.

High overhead
The association has been criticized in recent months for a high level of overhead, which state lawmakers said was keeping the intended amounts of tip-jar gaming revenue from reaching the volunteer companies.

Outside of the association budget, the county has received requests for $300,000 in additional Emergency Medical Services subsidies, the budget draft said.

Community Rescue Service and the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway have each requested $150,000 more in staffing subsidies for paid medical responders.

The increases reflect increases in call volumes at those two companies since the county’s EMS Master Plan was put in place in 2010, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.

The county is also facing an increase of $43,500 in its workers compensation costs, and an increase of $32,290 in property and casualty insurance for fire and rescue volunteer services, the budget said.

Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham asked why workers compensation costs have increased so dramatically.

Director of Emergency Services Kevin Lewis responded that the county is seeing more claims and dealing with an older population of volunteers. He did not have specific figures on workers compensation claims, but said he would provide them to her.

“I think the trend we want to see is fewer claims, and people working safer,” Callaham told him.

The emergency services budget is part of a county budget that will go to public hearing before a vote in May. The hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 8 at Hagerstown Community College’s Kepler Theater.

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