Fire officials block ambulance tax legislation

Leaders from Delaware fire companies statewide blocked a state bill that would have allowed residents of the Bethany Beach fire district to vote on a special tax to fund ambulance service there, officials said this week.

State Sen. George Bunting (D-20th) introduced Senate Bill 134 in mid-June to help Bethany’s company provide ambulance service to its residents. The bill came out of a Senate committee on June 21 but floundered, due mostly to opposition within the fire service community.

Officials from the Delaware Volunteer Firemen’s Association worried that if such an unprecedented move were allowed, state officials could pull state funding, expecting other companies to follow Bethany’s lead in asking residents to fund services through special taxes. That option would not be viable for smaller companies that have small tax bases, according to Alan Robinson, president of the state association. There are roughly 9,000 homes in Bethany’s district.

“It’s one of those brand new areas that we saw as a possible problem for smaller companies down the road,” Robinson, a Smyrna fireman, said Monday.

Bunting said fire officials will study other options before the General Assembly reconvenes in January, after ending a six-month long session early Sunday morning.

“They stood in the way of it,” Bunting said of the volunteer association. “In all fairness to them, we didn’t have the luxury of time to go to every company in Delaware. We’re hoping that they will come and support it in January, with some revisions, and get behind it. If not, they’re going to have to deal with the funding issues.”

Bunting and others who supported the bill envision a process similar to one school districts employ, to raise funds for the ambulance service. Residents of the district would vote through a referendum on a special tax – which, by all estimates, would cost the residents less than $100 annually — that would be levied through county property tax bills and be used to fund ambulance service through Bethany’s company.

No Delaware fire company has proposed a special tax to fund services, but supporters and opponents of the bill alike thought the process might catch on among fire officials who struggle to finance their operations. Hinting that the bill might have been doomed by its own originality, with many hesitant about change, some have called the idea “radical.”

Officials worried this week that the delay could cause a lapse in ambulance service in Bethany’s district, which runs on a narrow strip of land from the Indian River Inlet Bridge south to the Maryland line.

Others, though, have argued that leaving residents there without service is not an option, noting that officials might have to contract with a private company or turn to the county if Bethany cannot provide the service by January 2009, when the Millville Volunteer Fire Company discontinues their service.

Millville, a company stressed by astounding population growth in its own district, responded to nearly 550 calls in Bethany’s district last year. Robinson said that Bethany’s company should use ambulance bills — which many have called unreliable — and their portion of a tax levied on fire insurance bills to fund the service, like other companies have done to initiate an ambulance operation. Fire companies also receive funding through a county impact fee on development, grants and aid and donations.

Bethany officials have continually noted, however, that they could not afford to provide the service without some type of funding assistance. Start-up cost estimates are about $500,000, with an annual operating tag of roughly $300,000. Costs of equipment and the addition of a payroll — ambulance personnel are paid employees — could bankrupt the local company without additional funding sources, Bethany’s President Bob Webster said this week.

“This was the best possible solution for Bethany Beach to help solve the problem,” Webster said. “Without this legislation, we’re pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place. We don’t have the funding to provide the resources to make this work.”

Danny Magee, state fire commissioner for Sussex County and strong proponent of the bill, expressed similar frustrations Monday.

“Bethany Beach has got to have some money in order to do this, and they are not the only ones in the state,” Magee said. “There are numerous departments that are in financial need here. I hope everybody can sit down put their heads together and come up with something. I thought this was a pretty good idea.”