Following some heated remarks regarding collusion between commission members at a budget meeting of the Jefferson County Commission, three members agreed that the current ambulance fee set at $40 should be reduced by $5.
Commissioners Jane Tabb and Patsy Noland opposed the change and challenged fellow board membersPeter Onoszko, Josh Compton and Caleb Hudson of discussing the proposed action of reducing the fee and eliminating an increase already discussed for the Day Report Center.
Noland spoke up Tuesday saying that on Thursday, four members voted for an extra $100,000 to be allocated to the Day Report Center to address the opiod epidemic and suddenly on Friday morning, the decision was opened for reconsideration. She indicated that Compton had a plan to cut the Day Report Center and the Emergency Services Agency [via the amulance fee reduction] and that the other commissioners were privy to information.
"The had more information," she said. "They knew what the figures would be and that leads me to believe that some commissioners had that information before others."
"If one of us has information then we all need the information," she admonished.
The three men on the commission denied any wrong-doing with Onoszko, as president, saying the issue was closed.
The issue of the amublance fee was far from closed, however, as many citizens attended the meeting Tuesday to voice their concerns on both sides of the coin. Some individuals carried signs into the meeting proclaiming "No Ambulance Tax." Among them was Ramona Wesley who told commissioners that she believes the funding of the ESA and volunteer fire departments needs to come from the general revenue budget and not a tax.
County resident Paul Ashbaugh agreed stating that regardless of what the cut in the fee might be, the fee is too much. He voiced concern that businesses, no matter what their size, have to pay only one fee of $85 while he, as an owner of multiple properties, has to pay a fee on each one.
Commissioners agreed in their later discussions that the business fee needs to be re-evaluated. Finance Director Michelle Gordon suggested evaluating a rate based upon water and sewer usage although it would take some time to gather the data to make such an analysis.
Many in the audience spoke in favor of the fees saying they are a necessary expense to provide the service of emergency medical treatment.
"I am happy to pay the fee," said Hali Taylor, of Shepherdstown. "It is the price we pay for living in a civilized society."
Eleanor Finn echoed those sentiments saying that the fee is not a burdensome amount.
"Forty dollars a year, that breaks down to about $3.30 a month. We should be giving them more money," Finn said.
Tabb argued strongly to keep the fees stating that if this commission moves the fee into the general fund budget, those monies are no longer specifically earmarked in the future.
"This fee provides staffing only," Tabb argued. "It is critical." She went on to say that by proposing the fee reduction with the intent of reducing each year going forward until the funds are enveloped within the general fund has already increased costs in Jefferson County.
"Our employees are looking to leave for job security reasons," she said. "Currently that fee is protected-it can only be used for that purpose. There is no way to protect those funds when they are moved into the general budget," she said.
Gordon expressed her opinion as the county finance officer that the proposed reduction this year and those planned for future years, are not sustainable through the general budget. She recommended against the cut in the fee; however, Onoszko, Hudson and Compton indicated they will move forward to initiate the reduction through an ordinance change.
"This is a painful process where cuts have to be made," Onoszko said. "It will be a 3-2 vote to take it to $35. Once that happens, we determine how it's paid for.
The trio voting for the reduction do not plan to reduce monies allocated to the ESA; they will pull those monies from elsewhere in the budget. Compton indicated that there are leftover funds that can come from the budget rather than be placed in the county's capital outlay account, an account that serves as a savings of sorts.
Many in attendance Tuesday were members of the county's volunteer fire and rescue community as well as ESA employees. Several expressed dismay at the route taken by the commission.
Jack Wysong, a 51-year member of Independent Fire Company, shared that the volunteers starting asking for help back in 1977.
"It took us 40 years to get it," he said. "If the ambulance fee money comes from the general budget, it faces cuts just like every other department."
Earl Cogle said after the meeting, "They cut their nose off to spite their face. What costs them nothing will now cost them." He clarified by saying that what the community had paid for with the fee now will have to come from the county budget.