Millville residents warm to the idea of ambulance fee

The Millville Volunteer Fire Company (MVFC) still has details to hash out, but the Town of Millville appears quite receptive to a community-wide discount ambulance service.

At the Jan. 26 town council workshop, MVFC EMS Chief John Watson explained that the leap in population warrants more ambulance coverage. From 2012 to 2015, EMS calls have leapfrogged by about 200 calls each year (from 1,596 calls to 2,105 calls).

“We expect that that’s going to keep increasing,” Watson said.

There is always a career ambulance crew in Millville, ready to respond 24/7. A second EMT crew is ready at the Clarksville station from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

But at night, and during “third emergencies,” the MVFC must wait for volunteers to respond from home, and every minute counts with the area’s high number of heart and respiratory emergencies.

“Any second emergences that we would currently get … that person would have to wait for a crew to come from home, which would delay response time for that person who is sick or injured,” Watson said.

Millville only has three ambulances, so during “fourth emergencies,” a neighboring fire company must respond.

In 2015, there were 480 second emergencies, 50 third emergencies and 11 fourth emergencies.

Ambulance subscriptions are offered to all households in the fire district, which includes Millville, Ocean View, Clarksville and other unincorporated areas. If anyone in the immediate family is transported by ambulance, their insurance is billed for the cost, which is often around $850. After that, if they have an ambulance subscription, the individual doesn’t have to pay the difference to MVFC. Anyone without the subscription would have to pay whatever their insurance does not.

But if the towns of Millville and Ocean View or homeowner associations joined the new ambulance subscription as a group, every household would be mandated to pay $35, and all household visitors and renters would also be covered for discounted ambulance service.

That is only for improved lots with buildings.

• Legitimate houseguests swimming at the community pool would be covered. Kids who jumped the fence would not.

• Employees of Millville stores would be covered. Shoppers would not.

• Employees at Beebe Walk-In Care would be covered. Patients would not, unless they were already Millville residents or guests.

• If a neighboring fire company responds, MVFC will work with them to accept the ambulance subscription cost.

Better serving the community

This spring, the MVFC is already planning to expand 24-hour coverage with two career crews.

“We do have enough [dedicated employees] to start it in spring,” Watson said. “That gives us a timely response and helps reduce the delay of getting to residents.”

“I think we’re responsible, as fire department officials, to come to the Town and say we have a problem,” Watson said. “We need everybody’s help somehow to provide for you efficient service.”

The MVFC has already cut other important costs this year in order to fund 24-hour coverage, which could begin in February. They admitted to putting “the cart before the horse” because they believed it was the right thing to do.

“We’re guaranteeing that we’re going to cover the first two” emergencies quickly, Watson said.

In Millville, the community-wide discount subscription would begin with the May 2017 tax bill.

“We’re growing in leaps and bounds,” said Town Manager Debbie Botchie. “We have a development that hasn’t even started, for 500 homes. Millville By the Sea is an 18-year buildout. We still can annex [land in the] south, west and north.”

Botchie, who said she supports the idea “100 percent,” described the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company’s similar arrangement with Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island and the Sea Colony HOA.

“We do not call this a tax. This is a fee. It would be on your tax bill,” Botchie said. “What they do at the ‘Big Four’ is each town is responsible for collecting that $35. … It’s true, we can put a lien against your home,” but one phone call usually resolves delinquent fees, she noted.

“They have been doing this program for several years, and it works,” Botchie said. “They have had several increases over the year.” The four entities send representatives to an oversight board that approves the annual fee.

But MVFC doesn’t envision such a complex “Big Two” system, said MVFC President Doug Scott, preferring individual agreements with each town or HOA.

Ironing out the details

When asked about the Ocean View Town Council’s reaction, Scott said, “I thought it was positive on their part, though I think there was enough comments from the audience that they really wanted to take time and think it through before they made a decision.”

After approaching the Towns of Millville and Ocean View, the MVFC will begin approaching individual housing developments in their district that are in unincorporated Sussex County.

Otherwise, any household in the fire district can always join with the existing $50 subscription.

Scott said he doesn’t know yet how many properties would be affected. (Millville currently taxes 1,356 properties, Botchie told the Coastal Point in December.)

But collecting $35 from 100 percent of residents will be a significant improvement over approximately 40 percent participation in the $50 subscription service. It would also save the MVFC money on the subscription mailing costs.

Is it fair for businesses to pay the same amount as households? What about charging more for large businesses or for vacation rental houses? Would people be more likely to call an ambulance now because it’s already been paid? Watson couldn’t say.

Nothing is in writing, so the MVFC has time to improve the proposal.

“I guess what it really comes down to is we’ve never had a program like this before. We’ve got to come up with new ways to fund the two crews [we want],” Watson said.

Millville’s three-year contract would also be renegotiated after Year 1, to stabilize finances.

When asked if they’re open to MVFC’s proposal, most, if not all, of the 12 residents in the audience at the meeting raised their hands in support. Some residents had questions, while others said they whole-heartedly approved the life-saving service.

When asked if the MVFC wants the town council to fast-track the discussions and vote for a 2016 implementation, Watson and Scott said they didn’t want to rush things.

Instead, they’ll return for a Feb. 9 public hearing in Millville to discuss the details again.