Leggett proposes cuts in Montgomery County public safety services

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 8:28 PM

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett proposed cuts in ambulance service and layoffs of dozens of fire and rescue workers Tuesday as part of a bid to save $12.9 million this year in case a referendum on a county ambulance fee passes in November.

In a plan submitted to the County Council, Leggett (D) said the referendum to kill the fee "will most likely succeed," and outlined budget cuts he said should be made immediately to make up for potentially losing revenue from the fee.

Eleven emergency medical transportation units would be "destaffed," according to Montgomery Fire Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr. "There will be less transport units available, which means increased response times and increased transport times," Bowers said, though how much of an increase and in what areas is not clear.

Volunteer firefighters, who have opposed the ambulance fee, would also face a cut of more than $1 million in administrative and other costs.Leggett also proposed cutting funds for roadwork, sports academies for at-risk teens, services for elderly residents, library hours and drug treatment, among other things.

"We don't like any of these reductions," said Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield. But he said the current circumstances require them. "If we don't have this [fee], the county will be less safe."

Leggett's critics said his list was designed to discourage voters from overturning the fee.

"This budget intentionally maximizes the impact on public services for political reasons in order to influence the outcome of the ambulance fee vote," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), an ambulance fee opponent.

Andrews said there are other ways to make cuts that would cause less pain, citing millions of dollars he believes could be saved by revoking extra compensation time Leggett gave county workers this year. County officials dispute the notion that that would save money. The impact of that comp time will stretch over a number of years, and officials said funds were not put in the budget to cover those hours.

Leggett's proposal to cut funds for volunteer firefighters would also be counterproductive, Andrews said.

"If you were to cut these administrative staff, the county would be shooting itself in the foot," Andrews said. "Your volunteer service is going to be weakened, and you're not going to have the amount of volunteer hours contributed."

Leggett administration officials said the proposed cuts to fire and rescue services could have been significantly worse.

If all the expected ambulance fee proceeds were deducted from fire and rescue services, "it would be necessary to eliminate 15 ambulances (110 firefighter positions); two rescue squads (eight firefighter positions); six engines (84 firefighters); and five ladder trucks (52 firefighters)," Leggett wrote to the council. "I do not recommend making these reductions because it would have a devastating impact. . . and endanger public safety."

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