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Wheaton Volunteer Firefighters Fight Ambulance Fee

Board of Elections rejects putting the issue to a referendum.

Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Chief Allan D. Platky is disappointed that a petition drive has so far failed to get the county's new emergency services fee added to the November ballot, even though the fee isn't expected to impact the squad's plans for a new firehouse.

The county Board of Elections rejected a petition to put the issue before the voters in November, even though volunteer firefighters had collected more than 50,000 signatures. Many of the signatures were invalidated, causing opponents of the fee to fall short of the number needed to put the issue before the voters.

Opponents argue the fee will discourage people from calling an ambulance, and Platky said he was especially concerned about underinsured and uninsured populations in Wheaton.

But supporters insist no county resident — not even those without insurance — will pay for emergency services because the county will file claims directly with government and private health insurers. They say volunteers are worried that the fee will harm their fundraising.

"This measure will save lives because our Fire & Rescue Service will have the resources it needs to meet the growing emergency service needs within the county," said Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett in May after the County Council passed the bill enacting the fee.

Members of the Wheaton squad had helped collect signatures for the petition against the fee, soliciting family and friends and standing in shopping centers to gain public support.

Platky and others have argued that a strict new standard for validating signatures, which came out of a Maryland court ruling intended to fight fraud, makes it overly difficult to bring an issue to a referendum.

"I'm sure the county association [Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association] will be looking at it," Platky said after the board rejected the petition.

The Wheaton squad is part of the association, which has led the campaign against the emergency services fee and has pledged to pursue the issue in court.

The fee is expected to bring the county $13 million this year, and $170 million over a decade. Prince George's, Frederick and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland, among other neighboring jurisdictions, already have emergency services fees in place.

Meanwhile, the Wheaton squad, which has a sign outside its station at Grandview and Blueridge avenues asking the public to make telephone calls opposing the fee, is proceeding with plans to break ground on a new station at Georgia and Arcola avenues. Funding for the building is unrelated to the fee issue.

The Wheaton squad has about 130 volunteer firefighters and is manned around-the-clock, seven days a week. It responds to emergency calls in all parts of Wheaton and backs up neighboring squads in Silver Spring, Kensington and other communities.

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