Fight over Montgomery County ambulance fee continues

Both sides of the hotly contested debate over County Question A: Emergency Medical Services Transport Fee make their final cases to Montgomery County voters.
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 10:42 PM

Charlie Moyer has been running ambulance calls for 48 years.

"Back in '62, you'd wonder what the next one would be," he said. "Not anymore."

He arrives at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad at 10 a.m. and leaves at 7 p.m. He's run about 900 calls - this year - in Montgomery County and the District, saving lives and taxpayer dollars. He's a volunteer even if it doesn't always appear that way.

"I get something to do, and they get a service free," said Moyer, a former pressman for National Geographic and other magazines until his printing company went out of business.

But Moyer's idea of how things should work could be upended Tuesday when Montgomery voters decide whether to endorse an ambulance fee passed this spring but not yet implemented. County officials say without the new charge there could be service reductions and dozens of layoffs of career fire-rescue workers.

The station house on Bethesda's Battery Lane has become a center of activism. "No To Ambulance Fees" signs are stacked near oxygen tanks and scuffed fire helmets, and a scrolling message board out front crystallizes their two-fisted appeal for autonomy and tradition: "Keep our service free."

County officials, however, are quick to point out that there's nothing free about ambulance service. Moyer's squad is far more self-reliant than others in the county, which is why they have led the fight against the fee.

But in the rest of Montgomery, the government spends more than $14 million a year for gas, fire engines, utilities and other expenses related to the volunteer system, a senior fire official said.

"Times have changed. We don't have the money anymore," said county executive Isiah Leggett (D). "I just think there's a fundamental difference here."

The fight over the fee has been heartfelt and ugly. Each side has accused the other of demagoguery and endangering the public. Both use polarizing shorthand: Either the fee will discourage the ill from calling 911 and undercut volunteers, or its absence will starve all firefighters and paramedics of the money they need to swiftly aid those in need.

The dispute has turned long-standing tensions within Montgomery's mixed fire-rescue service into an angry family feud. Montgomery's fire-rescue system has shifted from one dominated by volunteers to one largely staffed by career personnel.

Volunteers like Moyer contend that the fee is a threat to a way of life.

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