Ambulance fee referendum rejected in Montgomery County

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
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 12:48 AM

In a year marked by tight budgets and tough votes in Montgomery County, voters on Tuesday were enlisted to sort through a sticky series of claims and counterclaims on a question that might not previously have been at the forefront of their busy lives: Should there be a fee for ambulance service?

Their answer: an emphatic no.

Hundreds of career firefighters and paramedics have been stumping for the fee, door to door, at malls - and on Tuesday, at polling places. Meanwhile, volunteer fire and rescue personnel worked phones, neighborhoods and polls seeking to block it.

The Montgomery County Council passed the fee in the spring. It had long been a priority of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who argued that the fee was a reasonable way to raise money to expand fire and rescue services. Bills of about $400 to $800 would be sent to county residents' insurance companies or the federal government.

"It's a resounding rejection by voters, despite an unprecedented campaign utilizing a huge amount of county resources and personnel," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), a longtime foe of the fee.

The fight over the fee was intense on both sides of the issue Tuesday.

"We're all about doing our share, but we pay enough taxes," said Lynn Stewart, a real estate agent from Montgomery's Kenwood area, who teamed up with her husband to cast two votes in favor of the fee. "So we thought, let the insurance companies pick up a little bit of the tab."

Some voters said they struggled to interpret mixed messages they received from those in uniform in the frenzied final days of the campaign. "It's not like they are all on the same side of the issue," said Emily Dickey of Bethesda. "It didn't make it any easier to decide what was right."

On a Halloween night excursion to Glen Echo, Dickey came upon a group of firefighters, fire truck and all, handing out fliers in support of the fee. "That's a good station there, good people," Dickey said. But she also received a call and pamphlet from volunteers at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. She eventually was "swayed pretty heavily" by the volunteers, and voted against the fee.

Voters also cast ballots Tuesday in the race between Leggett and Republican challenger Douglas E. Rosenfeld, as well as in nine county council races. Leggett and the other Democratic candidates had commanding leads late Tuesday.

At a Democratic celebration at the Rockville Hilton, the crowd was never hushed. There was little reason to be nervous. Campaign workers checked results on iPads, the wine flowed - and so did the bravado about the party's dominance in the county's electoral politics.

The ambulance fee referendum, though, was different. It added competitiveness and a surprising passion to an election season that had left some underwhelmed. Turnout in the September primaries was minuscule, in part because key Democratic incumbents such as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski had no credible primary opponents. Leggett had no primary challenger at all, leaving Montgomery without a marquee countywide contest to rev up voters heading into the general election.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company