Fire company: Pay more, or you may lose service

Photo by Fran Maye Longwood Fire Co. officials are asking municipalities to meet new financial obligations within five years, or they may be cut off from service.

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“We did the studies, and it would cost municipalities $13 million in the first year to replace us, and that doesn’t count a building,”

A.J. McCarthy

Longwood Fire Co. chief

By Fran Maye

fmaye@21st-centurymedia.com

Municipalities served by Longwood Fire Co. have been put on notice that unless they come up with more money – in some cases substantially more – they could face a loss of service.

“We have told all municipalities we serve that within five years they need to come up with 55 percent (of what it takes to fund that municipality’s service), or they will need to find someone else,” said A.J. McCarthy, Longwood Fire Co. chief. “We’ve been beating our heads against the wall way too long trying to stay afloat. We’re going to start focusing our attention on the municipalities who are paying for it.”

McCarthy said municipalities may need to institute a fire tax, or levy millage based on a property’s assessed value.

“We need to have an idea of what our reliable income will be,” he said. “It’s something that must be done, and every municipality is contributing their part.”

Longwood Fire Co. serves six municipalities: East Marlborough, Kennett Township, Pocopson Township, Pennsbury Township, Kennett Square and Newlin Township. But not all contribute their “fair share,” said McCarthy.

For example, McCarthy said it cost the fire company $448,576 to service East Marlborough in 2011, but the township only paid the fire company $62,290. And it cost $345,927 to service Pocopson, yet the township contributed $59,425 to the fire company in 2011. Kennett Square, which has its own fire company, contributed $7,500 in 2011 but cost Longwood $178,445 to service. Newlin Township gave nothing, yet cost the fire company $22,908. Pennsbury Township contributed $80,000, but it cost the fire company $363,508.91.

Only Kennett Township, McCarthy said, contributes fairly.

Pocopson Township has since instituted a dedicated fire tax and a dedicated EMS tax. McCarthy is in discussions with Newlin Township on how to increase its contribution. Newlin contributed $2,500.00, Pennsbury increased by $5,000 and talks are in progress with East Marlborough. East Marlborough has a dedicated fire tax but fire company officials disagree on how the funds are distributed between Longwood and Po-Mar-Lin fire companies.

McCarthy said the five-year deadline gives municipalities time to gradually phase in tax increases.

“I can appreciate that municipal budgets are tight,” McCarthy said. “But maybe that park you are getting ready to build may need to get put on hold until you meet your statutory obligations. I understand the need for raising taxes, but (municipal officials) need to understand that this is neighbors servicing neighbors. It allows us to have a reliable source of income.”

The fire company, McCarthy, is a business with a full-time business manager and all the other aspects of a business, including assets and liabilities.

Contributing to the shortfall in funding is the fire company’s Emergency Medical Service. For many years, Longwood Fire Co. was the sole provider of EMS in Kennett Square, and never received financial support for it. Currently, Longwood Fire Co. is sole provider of paramedic ambulance service. Surrounding fire companies only provide basic life support and Southern Chester County EMS only provides paramedic services.

“In southern Chester County, we’re it,” McCarthy said. “When you call us you get a paramedic and EMT on the same truck. We provide both levels of service, basic and advanced life support.”

Longwood Fire Co. responds to about 2,500 calls per year, 500 of which are fire or rescue related. That leaves about 2,000 calls on average per year for medical emergencies. Last year, that number was 2,700.

But when the government recently changed its rules governing Medicare payment, it affected Longwood Fire Co., which does a large volume of EMS calls due to the number of retirement communities in Kennett Township region.

“A Medicare call may cost us $950, or upward of $1,200 to provide care, and we only get $400 of that,” McCarthy said. “And then there is the flip side of insurance companies finding every way they can to reduce that bill. There is a lot of misconception with municipal officials that ambulance bills get paid in full. They don’t.”

McCarthy said only about 48 percent of EMS service calls get collected.

“And that’s just one side of the fire company,” he said. “That’s doesn’t take into account the fire and rescue side, or the administrative costs. When you’re billing out over a million dollars and collecting only 48 percent of that, there’s a balance.”

McCarthy said if municipalities were to fund an ambulance operation, they would lose money hand over fist.

“We did the studies, and it would cost municipalities $13 million in the first year to replace us, and that doesn’t count a building,” McCarthy said. “We are saving our residents $11 million a year, and that doesn’t include ambulance operation. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for taxes to be increased to afford us. The increases are not outrageous.”

Longwood Fire Co. spends about $65,000 in fuel per year for its fire and EMS vehicles. It has 26 employees, all career EMS personnel. It has a ladder truck that will need to be replaced soon. That will cost well over $1 million. The fire company has investments, mainly stocks Pierre DuPont left the fire company in his will. But those investments took a hit when the stock market dived a few years ago.

“Money from our reserves won’t even pay for a full year of EMS operation,” McCarthy said.

So the solution for the fire company’s continued existence has to come now, fire officials decided recently.

“The reason we came up with five years is because this has to be done sooner rather than later,” McCarthy said. “Fifty-five percent is the balance of what they (municipalities) are paying now. This has been in the works for 10 years within the Kennett Regional Planning Commission, and they still didn’t live up to it. There has to be a deadline, we won’t be able to continue operating like this.”

McCarthy, like the rest of his crew, is a volunteer. He has a full time job, a part time job, and a job as the fire chief. He estimates he works at least 40 to 50 hours a week as a volunteer, in addition to his full time job, and all of those days involve 12-hour shifts.

And he said he knows people don’t understand how much money they are saving by fire companies utilizing volunteers. In Pennsylvania, volunteers save taxpayers $9 billion per year. That’s $93,500 per firefighter, or $1,800 per resident.

“A lot of residents already think they pay taxes to make the fire company run,” he said. “We’ll be washing our vehicles outside the fire house and people yell at me saying I’m wasting their tax money. They think we’re paid and tax funded. They have no idea.”

And McCarthy is asking municipal officials to put the issue to a referendum question in the upcoming general election.

“I asked the supervisors and municipal officials I have spoken to put the tax increase to a referendum if they are so concerned with raising the taxes,” McCarthy said. “They had no issue doing this for open space.”

McCarthy said municipal officials will need to come up with a funding plan soon, or they may find themselves without service.

“They very well would have to find another service provider if they don’t come up with (adequate) funding,” McCarthy said. “We enjoy all our townships, especially the residents, and we have been serving them for almost 100 years, but there needs to be some sort of consequence for an action. There is no statutory obligation for a fire company to provide service to a municipality unless you are a contracted fire company or a municipal fire company, like West Chester or Phoenixville. There is nothing that says we have to come help you. We want to, but we want help from municipal officials to do it.”