The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a $760,000 special appropriation Tuesday for the purchase and repair of emergency vehicles -- a move council members said is necessary to deal with a growing problem of broken-down ambulances and firetrucks.
The money will be used to buy or lease new equipment or to pay for repairs on existing equipment. Fire officials have said that the county faces a growing crisis because of the number of vehicles that are out of commission for repairs, and a recent county study affirmed the problem.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) supports additional money for fire equipment but opposed Tuesday's special appropriation on the grounds that sufficient money can be generated by a proposed ambulance-user fee without having to dip into the county's fund for special appropriations.
The council is expected to vote this year on the ambulance-fee proposal, which would charge $350 for every ambulance trip. Many jurisdictions in the area charge a fee, and supporters say the cost to Montgomery residents would be negligible, if anything, because health insurance would probably cover the fee and already factors in such fees when charging premiums. Some worry an ambulance fee would discourage seniors and poor people from calling for an ambulance when they need it.
"We appreciate the council identifying the priority" of getting more money to the fire and rescue service, Fire Administrator Gordon Aoyagi said. "But the [county] executive feels it should be supported by the ambulance fee."
Several council members said Tuesday that waiting for revenue that would come from a fee on ambulance use -- which wouldn't be available until next year at the earliest -- could be dangerous.
"We really need to move forward now to address this . . . urgent problem," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg).
Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said, "We think that the maintenance issue is one we need to address immediately."
Nearly half of the county's fire engines were out of service for maintenance or repairs for at least a week during the month of July, according to a Fire and Rescue Service report submitted to county officials in August. The same report noted that 16 of the county's 18 ladder trucks were out of service for at least a week during July.
That report came on the heels of an extensive study released in January by the county's Office of Legislative Oversight. It described a Fire and Rescue Service burdened by chronically disabled equipment and a rapid rise in the number of calls for service.