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Harford's paid ambulance service goes into a financial hole

A Harford County paramedics and EMTs union president spoke earlier this week against legislation that, if approved, will transfer $400,000 to the county's hybrid emergency ambulance service operation whose annual budget was overspent by the end of March.

The money is going to the quasi-public association that was created by county fire companies several years ago to backstop their volunteer ambulance services with a paid service.

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The Harford County Fire and EMS Foundation, as the organization is called, has already overspent its $2.4 million in county funding for the 2012 fiscal year, county officials acknowledged this week.

During a public hearing held before the Harford County Council meeting Tuesday evening, County Treasurer Kathryn Hewitt and Legislative Liaison Nancy Giorno presented the funding legislation, which would transfer funds from the general fund for this fiscal year to the emergency medical services budget.

The $400,000 would be used to cover expenses that were higher than the county initially expected when the 2012 budget was passed last May, Hewitt said.

The "net effect," according to the fiscal impact note, is a 17.8 percent increase in the 2012 emergency medical services budget and is 11 percent more than the projected additional need.

'Stopgap' measure

This transfer is a "stopgap" measure, Giorno said, and is to provide needed funds for the Harford County Fire and EMS Foundation to continue operating through June 30, the end of the 2012 fiscal year.

The money is to cover the cost of two paramedics, rising gasoline costs and $120,000 in legal fees from when the association was dealing with unionization issues.

Sources said the association, which is an adjunct to the county's privately operated Volunteer Fire and EMS Association, racked up the legal fees trying to fight an attempt by some of its paramedics to gain union representation through the International Association of Fire Fighters, or IAFF.

Despite that costly effort, which is still generating legal bills, the union narrowly won a representation vote last fall among the 66 paid paramedics and EMTs who work for the association.

Robert James, president of the new IAFF local in Harford County, spoke against the emergency funding bill Tuesday.

The foundation was initially self-sustaining, James said, but it has since evolved to become what he called a "back door" for the volunteer fire companies to get money from the county.

James argued that fire companies used to reimburse the foundation for services and should go back to that way because there is "no money coming into the foundation."

"It's going out faster than it can come in," he said.

James also said the union did not have a lawyer for its dealings with the foundation and questioned why the foundation needs one.

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Change not working

The foundation has been around since 2005, Hewitt said in her presentation, but it wasn't until last year the county created a separate line item in the budget as part of the Emergency Operations budget.

According to the approved 2012 budget, the foundation received $2,247,000 from the county. The 2013 budget released late last week by Harford County Executive David Craig calls for the foundation to receive $2.6 million next fiscal year.

Council President Billy Boniface remarked that the budgeting change was supposed to provide more oversight over the foundation's spending and asked how it was working.

Giorno responded that it was not working and that is why they are going back to the "drawing board." If the appropriation is not passed, she said earlier, the foundation would not be able to provide service to citizens. Council members did not vote on the bill Tuesday.

At the close of the evening, Councilman Joe Woods briefly mentioned the public hearing and urged local fire company members and citizens to give their input at the public hearing for the fire commission bill.

Woods, a longtime volunteer fireman and former chief of the Fallston Volunteer Fire Company, said he found it "disturbing" that the only person to come to the public hearing for the appropriations bill was the union president and he was speaking against it.

If people do not come out and share their opinions on the fire commission, there is "no hope" for the fire service, Woods added.

That public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, April 10, at 7 p.m. in council chambers at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air.

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