If the mels tax passess, how will EMS benefit?
By Nancy Lindsey
The Patrick County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in July to place a referendum on a 4% meals tax (also known as a restaurant tax or prepared meals tax) on the Nov. 4 ballot, for the fifth time in a decade.
The measure, which was defeated in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2013, would apply only to areas outside the town of Stuart, which already has a meals tax.
Along with that decision, the supervisors voted unanimously to pass a resolution earmarking the funds from a meals tax, estimated at $200,000, toward emergency medical services in the county.
However, most of the supervisors have been short on specifics on how the money would be spent.
The Enterprise asked each supervisor at a recent meeting how he or she thought the meals tax proceeds should be used, received a written response from Dan River District Supervisor Roger Hayden, and later sent requests for written responses to the other four board members.
Hayden responded: "If the voters of Patrick County so choose to pass the meals tax, and put more burden on our over-taxed Patrick County citizens, then the funds should be used to support and retain our EMS volunteer system."
A verbal response came from Mayo River District Supervisor Danny Foley, who said, "we need to buy a lot more equipment, and may have to hire additional people to help meet the needs of the county and help back up first-responders."
Smith River District Supervisor Crystal Harris, board chairman and captain of the Smith River Rescue Squad, said in a brief telephone interview that she supports the meals tax and would spend it on trying to meet the needs of the county's volunteer rescue squads in their efforts to help Patrick citizens.
Harris said she is working on compiling data about the number of calls run by each squad, response times and other information.
Blue Ridge District Supervisor Karl Weiss, vice-chairman, sent a written response.
"I am in support of the meals tax that is going to be on the ballot next month," Weiss wrote. "The laws have changed and the tax does not apply to any non-profit organization, which includes churches, Ruritan clubs, fire departments, rescue squads, VFW, American Legion or any non-profit club or organization. This has been a negative issue for the tax support in the past.
"Today, the citizens of Patrick County pay a meals tax in most localities that join our county and in the town of Stuart; Surry, Floyd, Carroll, Henry and Montgomery counties include a meals tax that we pay and Patrick County gets nothing in return for it," Weiss said.
"Patrick County has a lot of attractions that draw people from other areas to come here and enjoy; while they are here visiting our beautiful county a big majority of them will eat somewhere in the county and if we had a meals tax they would help contribute to our needs which is what we do when and if we choose to eat in a nearby county," Weiss said.
"The Patrick County Board of Supervisors has already designated that the revenue from a meals tax would be used for fire and rescue emergency services," Weiss said. "I, as Blue Ridge District supervisor, would like to see the money spent on training and equipment for our volunteers; in the future I believe we will have to support some type of paid assistance, even if it is only for daytime hours since most of our volunteers have jobs and it is hard for them to get off work during the day to respond to a call."
Peters Creek District Supervisor Lock Boyce also sent a written response.
"The first thing that Patrick County citizens should understand is that while the current board of supervisors can earmark prepared meals tax revenues for a particular use, we may not make this decision permanent," Boyce wrote. "That is, any future board may choose to spend the meals tax anyway they see fit, or even to do away with the meals tax for that matter.
"I'm hoping that this time the voters will pass a meals tax which will add about $200,000 to county revenues, basically by taxing highly-priced meals at Primland," Boyce said. "Most of the restaurants in Patrick County are within the town limits and will not be additionally taxed as they already pay a meals tax to the town.
"Food purchased in grocery stores to prepare at home will not be taxed," Boyce said. "Meals served by fire departments, rescue squads, churches or other charities will not be taxed. I hope we can overcome the knee-jerk reaction to vote against any tax and vote for this tax which truly is a voluntary tax. If you want to avoid a meals tax, just eat at home.
"It is the consensus of the board of supervisors that we spend the meals tax revenue on EMS (emergency medical services) and I agree," Boyce said. "I also think we should budget about $100,000 a year for EMS, giving us a total of about $300,000 each year for EMS.
"Some people have strongly voiced their feelings that the money go to set up some sort of a 'paid service,'" Boyce said. "This will not work for Patrick County. We depend on a volunteer system and will continue to do so as long as we are a rural area with a low call volume.
"I am distressed that some supporters of a paid service are trying to stir up hysterical opposition to our volunteers," Boyce said. "The system is not failing and people are not 'dying in the streets.' To cover the county with a paid service to guarantee an ALS (advanced life support) response anywhere in the county 24/7 in under a certain number of minutes will cost between $6 million and $12 million each year (think of the sheriff's department without state assistance) depending on the contingencies you want to cover and the bells and whistles you want.
"In other words, your county tax bill will increase from 50% to 100%," Boyce said. "And do you know what? Once you get it set up, you will find this paid system will not be as flexible or as good as the current volunteer system. Surely no reasonable person can think that a couple of ALS guys running out from Stuart to anywhere in the county is better than a good volunteer system.
"You'll need a minimum of six stations with three shifts staffed by a minimum of three people, including one ALS provider, and you'll need some sort of a backup system of additional units," Boyce said. "I heard that one person was demanding a paramedic response in two minutes. Well, the only way we can do that is to set up an 'adopt a paramedic program' and move a paramedic into every household in the county.
"What we can do is to improve an already good volunteer system," Boyce said. "First, we should improve recruiting and retention of volunteers. These volunteers are vital to the county but they are not county employees and they should not be harassed by the county. Our volunteers receive the same training as paid service employees. Serious errors are rare and when they occur they should be addressed by the emergency room doctor, the medical director, and the line officers of the squad.
"Our volunteers should not be told how to dress or to pee in a cup," Boyce said. "In fact, the only appropriate remark from any county employee to any of these volunteers should be, 'thank you. How can I help?'
"Training should be easily available in Patrick County and paid for by the county and not the volunteers," Boyce said. "There is no excuse for a class costing $500 per student in Patrick County and $150 in Henry County. Our rescue squads should have the state-of-the-art equipment they need without wasting money on 'toys.' The county should pay for equipment and supplies if there are no grants available.
"Now, there are some areas with poor response times and at certain times, too many calls are dropped and sent to mutual aid or, God forbid, not answered at all," Boyce said. "Instead of yelling and throwing some kind of fit, we need to calmly review these problem areas and it may be that some paid personnel may be indicated, but these paid folks should supplement the volunteers, be chosen by the volunteers in the involved squads, and managed by the squads, not by some central office in Stuart. The expense could be paid by the county out of the meals tax.
"I ran rescue calls for 10 years with JEB Stuart, and I am honored to still serve on the board," Boyce said. "No one has demonstrated to me how setting up some county-run bureaucracy and jacking our taxes out the roof is preferable to a good volunteer system. I smell a rat. I think some of the very vocal advocates of a paid system are looking for a pie job (under two calls per shift), high salaries ($35,000 and up) and big expense accounts with fancy uniforms, huge trucks (also fancy) and plenty of toys (radiation detectors in case some terrorist sets off a dirty bomb in Stuart).
"If we calm down and work together, with the help of a meals tax (the diners at Primland, God love 'em), we can have an even better system than we have now," Boyce said. "If you see one of our volunteers, please say 'thank you and how can I help?' Well, for starters, you can vote for the meals tax."