Thursday, November 20, 2008

Red-light cameras mulled as source of EMS funding - Gazette

Plan is a ‘risk' that puts county in deeper financial hole, Leggett says

by Janel Davis | Staff Writer | November 19, 2008

A plan to use revenues from red light and speed cameras as an alternative to a proposed ambulance fee would be a "risk," would move the county in the wrong financial direction and could jeopardize the county's camera safety program, County Executive Isiah Leggett said Tuesday.

Leggett (D) held a press conference to denounce the proposal by council Vice President Philip M. Andrews, the governing body's staunchest opponent of the controversial ambulance fee.

Under a plan put forth this week by Andrews, net revenues from speed and red light cameras — already in use in the county — would fund emergency apparatus for the Fire and Rescue Service. The camera revenues now pay for pedestrian safety and other public safety programs.

The proposed legislation would require the money be spent on new programs and equipment.

"This legislation would provide enough funds to purchase fire and rescue apparatus on an annual basis, as needed," said Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, who introduced his legislation Tuesday morning.

"None of the money [from camera revenues] goes to fire apparatus, and that equipment is frequently involved in road safety. This would be a close nexus in how the money would be raised and how it would be dedicated."

But the plan would increase the county's financial challenges by forgoing a potential $14 million in annual revenue collected from the ambulance fee, and would require officials to find additional money to pay for new pedestrian and public safety programs.

The county collects about $21 million in camera revenues annually. About $11 million of the revenue is spent on operating costs. The remaining $10 million is included in the budget for pedestrian and public safety programs, as required by state law.

"This bill does not offset the ambulance fee because this $10 million is already assumed in the budget to cover existing programs," Leggett said. "We would need to find additional revenue to cover this loss of revenue or reduce or eliminate some programs."

Under Andrews' plan, the council would allocate 50 percent of the revenues for emergency fire and rescue equipment, 35 percent for pedestrian safety programs and 15 percent for traffic safety programs, which would be funded in the police department budget.

The bill's allocations may not be legal under provisions of the state law governing the county's speed camera program, Leggett said, and could cause lawmakers to reconsider the county's program.

Andrews introduced his bill with four council co-sponsors, including Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, who advocated for increasing the allocation to pedestrian safety initiatives.

Another co-sponsor of Andrews' bill, Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, said, "My constituents have no patience on raising more taxes and fees, especially on emergency services, which is how most of them see the ambulance fee."

Last month, a council committee headed by Andrews indefinitely tabled the ambulance fee proposal. Leggett's staff has been meeting with council members to revisit the fee proposal.

Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda also co-sponsored Andrews' plan.

Leggett (D) proposed the ambulance fee as a dedicated method of paying for fire and rescue service needs. The fee would be billed to a patient's insurance company, and no county resident, including those without insurance, would be charged, Leggett has insisted. Montgomery County is one of the last jurisdictions in the region that transports patients free of charge.

Since the ambulance fee proposal, the county's volunteer firefighters have campaigned vigorously against the fee, saying it could cause some patients to hesitate in calling for an ambulance and could reduce their fundraising revenues. They also argue that they shouldn't have to charge fees for services now provided for free.

Many of the county's volunteer corporations are supporting Andrews' alternative.

But not all of Andrews' co-sponsors, or other council members, see the legislation as an alternative to the ambulance fee.

"For me, these are two separate things," said Council President Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist.2) of Germantown, another co-sponsor.

Councilmen Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac, Don Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton, and At-large members Marc Elrich and George L. Leventhal both of Takoma Park, did not sign on to the legislation.

Elrich said the bill "was not the way to go," and Leventhal said the plan was not an alternative to the ambulance fee and would not expand the county's speed safety programs, as he would like.

A public hearing on the camera legislation is scheduled for Dec. 9.

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