Ambulance service tax gets boost

As expected, state Sen. George Bunting (D-20th) introduced a bill last week that would allow local residents to vote on a special tax to pay for ambulance services in the Bethany Beach fire district.

The Millville Volunteer Fire Company for years has provided ambulance service to the district — which runs in a narrow strip along the coast from the Indian River Inlet Bridge to the Maryland line — but, stressed by astounding growth, will discontinue that service in January 2009. Only residents of the Bethany fire district would be subject to the tax, which officials hope to attach to county property tax bills.

No Delaware fire company has sought a tax increase to fund services but, if approved, the process might catch on as a funding avenue for fire officials, who continually struggle to finance their operations, some said last week. Days before the bill was introduced, state Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th), Bunting, Bethany Fire Chief Tom Moore and Danny Magee, state fire commissioner for Sussex County, touted the idea as a creative and democratic solution.

The proposed referendum process is modeled after one school districts use to fund pricey projects. A special tax for the service in the Bethany’s district would cover the addition of a payroll — most ambulance service personnel are paid employees — and equipment. Start-up costs would total roughly $500,000, with an annual operating tag for the ambulance service of nearly $300,000, Bunting said last week.

If charged with providing the service, Moore said that Bethany officials hope to order equipment by late summer, in order to have it arrive in time for January 2009 service, and with only eight days remaining in the legislative session in Dover, Bunting stressed urgency last week.

“We need to move fairly quickly on this,” Bunting said Tuesday. “It would give the people the opportunity to look at the need and them themselves to vote on the need.”

Moore said last week that Bethany’s district could not afford to pick up the service without “some type of help.”

Fire companies receive donations, grants and aid to pay for services, in addition to a tax levied on each fire insurance policy that is specifically slated to cover volunteer fire services. Companies also bill for ambulance services, but collection rates are very low and officials respond to too few calls in Bethany’s district annually to cover expenses with that revenue, Moore and Magee have said.

Last year, according to a Millville Volunteer Fire Company release issued in April, Millville ambulances responded to more than 1,800 calls, only 544 of which were in Bethany’s district.

“I’m sure everybody hates a tax increase, but if that’s what it takes to have the service, to me, that’s what we have to do unless someone can come up with a better way,” Moore said in a phone interview last week. “We’re committed to making it work, but we, financially, don’t have the funding to do that unless we get some help. “