Leggett proposes cuts in public safety services

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

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," causing increased response and transport times, according to Montgomery Fire Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr.

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.

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), an ambulance fee opponent

said there are other ways to make cuts that would cause less pain.

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."

At issue in the dispute is whether Montgomery voters should keep the ambulance fee the council passed as part of its $4.27 billion budget this year. The county's spending plan shrank for the first time in at least 40 years.

Leggett and other fee supporters note that county residents will not receive a bill for ambulance service. Instead, insurance companies and the federal government will be charged. Not having the fee in place leaves that money on the table at exactly the time it could be used to improve fire and rescue services, supporters of the fee say.

Opponents say they are concerned that its existence would discourage sick and poor residents from dialing 911, and they say charging a fee is an affront to volunteers who save the county millions of dollars. They also say it could dampen their own fundraising efforts.

There seemed to be little if any hunger on the part of the council to rush to make any cuts before the vote on the referendum.

"Why would we?" asked council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). "We'll wait and see what the voters say."

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