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Va. Residents Pay for Neighboring Towns' EMS

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Va. -- Anyone thinking about moving to Montgomery County should stay away from Christiansburg and Blacksburg if they want to save a few dollars. Town residents pay higher taxes so their county neighbors don't have to.

The problem is with emergency services. Town fire and rescue squads serve people far outside town limits, but county funding is not proportional to the number of calls its residents generate. The towns pay more than their fair share.

The Blacksburg Rescue Squad serves the northern third of the county. This fiscal year it received $69,000 from the county and $449,000 from the town.

That might be fine if the squad spent 13 percent of its time in the county and 87 percent in Blacksburg, but it doesn't. It responds to about 2,500 calls per year, and one-third of them are in the county.

Marshall Frank, who heads the Blacksburg squad, calls it "disproportionate."

"It's very clear that we provide a larger percentage of calls to the county than we are supported for," he said.

The same story plays out in Christiansburg. The county pays 25 percent of that rescue squad's local budget but receives 40 percent of the service runs. For the fire department, it is even further out of whack -- 11 percent of the funding, 40 percent of the calls.

The only agency whose funding comes close to paralleling service is the Blacksburg Fire Department, and that's probably because Virginia Tech is in the mix.

Town residents know they will pay taxes on top of county taxes, but they rightly expect those taxes to fund town services.

It's been like this for as long as anyone can remember.

"The county says it's broke and doing the best it can," Frank said.

Maybe it could do better if tax revenue were sufficient to cover needed services. Whatever happened to fiscal responsibility and paying for what you get?

"We have not been able to close the funding gap to [the departments'] satisfaction," County Administrator Clay Goodman said. "There's so much competing for the scarce resources we do have that we try to allocate by priority."

If fire and rescue aren't priorities, what are? They're among the most basic of the basic services local government traditionally provides.

It's tempting to suggest town fire and rescue squads stop responding to calls outside the borders until county residents start paying for what they get. That would ask the volunteers to reject everything that drove them to serve their communities in the first place. Fortunately for the rest of us, their very nature will not allow them to stand by while homes burn and people die.

"Someone's got to do it," Capt. Kelly Walters of the Christiansburg Rescue Squad said.

Pressure for change must come from elsewhere.

The county is working on its budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July. Speak up, town residents. Go to the next public hearing. Write to your supervisors. Tell them you're tired of paying higher taxes so that the rest of the county can get discounted services.

Supervisors might then find courage and conviction. They might explain to county residents that exploiting their neighbors' good will is wrong.

Last month, they took the first step by unanimously endorsing a plan to find a fairer funding system. They hope to have representatives from the county, the towns, Tech and emergency services all gather to hash out the details.

It won't be easy.

The county might pay a percentage of the funding proportional to calls, but that would not be enough.

Town residents are county residents, too, and therefore pay taxes to both. If the county provided one-third of the funding for Blacksburg Rescue to match the one-third of calls it generates, Blacksburgers would still double pay.

Their town taxes would pay for the percentage of services they receive, and they would chip in to make sure the rest of the north end of the county gets a fire truck or an ambulance when it needs one.

In addition, calls from remote parts of the county are more expensive than calls in the towns. Gas prices alone tilt financial responsibility even further toward the county.

The ideal solution would be a split tax rate. In some states, counties give town residents a break on their taxes because they receive fewer services from the county.

Alas, that's probably unconstitutional in Virginia.

Instead, the county could pay more per call than the towns. Or it could just pay for all of the emergency services, but the towns probably won't want to give up their role.

There's going to be some complicated math involved, but a solution is possible.

County residents who live outside of Christiansburg and Blacksburg will certainly wind up paying more, but that's the price of equity.

Trejbal is an editorial writer for The Roanoke Times based in the New River Valley bureau in Christiansburg.

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