Montgomery ambulance fee rejection means tough budget questions

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; 9:55 PM

Among the toughest feats of linguistic gymnastics attempted by supporters of Montgomery County's ambulance fee was trying to convince the public that it was not a fee at all.

Even in a county where Democrats were dominant Tuesday despite big Republican gains nationwide, that little word was about as popular as another three-letter political expletive that begins with T and ends with X.

County Executive Isiah Leggett's lieutenants in the extraordinary government campaign for the fee made an effort to rechristen it an "ambulance reimbursement," since bills for service would go directly to county residents' insurance companies or the federal government. But many voters rejected both that semantic shading and the broader policy.

"It has gone through lots of gyrations, but I think it's an anti-tax, anti-fee kind of vote," said Phyllis Fordham, a retired sales executive. "We do feel our government wastes a lot of money."

Fordham was angered when Leggett had county employees hang yellow banners supporting the fee on public buildings. She said the electioneering was "outrageous" and considers Leggett disingenuous for proposing last month to cut ambulance service and firefighters if the fee failed. "It was just another ploy," Fordham said.

She apparently had company Tuesday. In unofficial results, voters rejected the referendum on the fee 54 percent to 46 percent, with many registering not only fiscal but also deep philosophical objections. The vote leaves Leggett, the County Council and Montgomery residents facing a multimillion-dollar mid-year budget hole that no one knows how to plug.

Leggett is leaving the onus on the council, which was split when it passed the fee in May and must now make the final decisions.

"We don't have it. I'm sorry we don't have it," Leggett said of the fee. "We'll have to do without it. . . . My opinion, and why I was making this case is, it's going to be very, very difficult, and it's going to be very painful, and it's not going to be short-term."

Fee proponents had said it would generate $14 million annually. Some of that would have gone to administer the program. Leggett last month proposed $12.9 million in mid-year cuts, including "destaffing" 11 emergency units, layoffs and less money for drug treatment, the elderly, libraries and at-risk teens.

Council member Marc Elrich (D-at large), who like his fellow council candidates sailed to victory Tuesday, voted for the fee during deliberations this year on the county's $4.27 billion budget.

"If people knew where there was $12 million of cuts in the spring, nobody brought it up. We were struggling, cutting all kinds of little programs, after-school programs, all sorts of good programs because we couldn't find the money," Elrich said. "People may not like the choices Ike made. But there aren't any good choices. We got all the low-hanging fruit."

Council President Nancy Floreen (D-at large) said she is expecting new revenue figures from the state this month that will influence the council's next steps.

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