Tax increase coming for ambulance service?

Legislation expected in Dover within days would allow the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company to propose a tax increase in its district to pay for ambulance service that currently is provided through the Millville Volunteer Fire Company but which the MVFC has said it will discontinue in 2009.

It would be the first time a Delaware fire company has sought such a tax increase to pay for services and a concept that some said this week could gain popularity statewide as a funding mechanism among fire officials who struggle to finance their operations.

Specific details of the impending bill were still unclear mid-week, but it would essentially create a special tax district in the BBVFC coverage area — which runs in a narrow coastal strip from the Indian River Inlet Bridge through Fenwick Island — and allow residents there to vote on a tax increase that would be levied though county property tax bills. Action was expected soon, with just more than two weeks left in the current legislative session.

“We need to move fairly quickly on this,” state Sen. George Howard Bunting (D-20th) said Tuesday. “It would give the people the opportunity to look at the need and them themselves to vote on the need.”

State Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th) and Sussex County State Fire Commissioner Danny Magee, who have been working with Bunting and others to find a solution to the Bethany ambulance issue, spoke in support of the bill this week.

Millville Volunteer Fire Company officials announced early this year that, facing unprecedented growth and a more than 60 percent jump in calls from 2000, it would stop providing ambulance services to the Bethany district in January of 2009. Magee said that, if the bill passes, he expects fire companies across the state to use the mechanism to raise funds where services are needed.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Magee said. “The fire department lays out their needs to the people and how much money it is going to take … to fund this thing. This would be a new mode of financing fire departments and ambulance services in the state.”

The process would be modeled off one school districts statewide regularly employ to raise money for pricey projects. According to Bunting, who agreed with Magee that the concept would gain popularity statewide, there are roughly 9,000 homes in Bethany’s fire district and start-up costs to provide ambulance service there would be roughly $500,000, with an annual operating tag of nearly $300,000.

Bethany Beach Fire Chief Tom Moore said his company cannot afford the costs associated with providing ambulance service “without some type of help.”

“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 this week. “We’re committed to making it work but we, financially, don’t have the funding to do that unless we get some help.”

The tax increase would cover, in part, the addition of a payroll — most emergency medical personnel are paid employees, unlike the area’s volunteer firemen — and the cost of new equipment. Ambulance services also receive grants and aid from the state and Sussex County, and bill for their services. But, according to officials, collection rates on such ambulance bills are low and ambulances respond to too few calls in Bethany’s district annually for bills to cover expenses.

Last year, according to the Millville company, Millville ambulances responded to more than 1,800 calls, only 544 of which were in Bethany’s district. Fire companies also receive a tax levied on each fire insurance policy, in addition to governmental grants and aid, to pay for volunteer fire services – but not ambulance service.

Mike Lowe, president of the Sussex County Volunteer Firemen’s Association, would not comment directly on the bill but said that it would be reviewed by the association’s legislative committee if introduced.

“The only thing I can tell you for sure is that the volunteer EMS service needs assistance,” Lowe said. “Everyone needs help.”