Highland County Board Explores Special Legislation to Support EMS
The Highland County Board of Supervisors continues to explore ideas on how to support emergency medical services (EMS). At their November 7th meeting, Commonwealth Attorney Melissa Dowd updated the Board with outreach efforts and correspondence on possible options moving forward. In reaching out to other counties on a listserv of local government attorneys, the main response was that there are few solutions to the problem of dwindling resources for EMS, with many areas having a blend of paid staff and volunteers in a similar way that Highland County operates.
Currently, Highland County has an incorporated non-profit volunteer rescue squad. County EMS Coordinator, Chris Vernovai, was hired full-time in 2014 to assist with running calls as a paramedic, as well as to help keep in compliance with state regulatory agencies. In addition, the rescue squad switched from a 100% donations model to a revenue recovery model that still welcomes donations. Revenue recovery allows the squad to receive payment for services rendered to the public, including submitting payment through insurance companies. Even with such changes, more funds and volunteers are in demand.
Looking forward at ways to assist, the Board is considering special legislation. Ms. Dowd says they are hoping for at least $250,000 to add some positions to emergency medical services in the county, with a goal to have a paramedic available 24/7. With that goal, the amount of positions added would depend on salary based upon an individual’s training credentials.
To raise funds, the Board does not want to add a tax levy for real estate and personal property as provided for in Virginia Code, because it is people that use emergency medical services, not farmland or timberland. Even if the board went that route, the county would only raise $69,000 per penny on real estate taxes based upon current assessments. A proposed alternative way to move forward would be to ask the Virginia General Assembly for special legislation that would allow the county to assess a fee on every habitable dwelling to help cover the EMS costs. Over 51% of tax map parcels in Highland County have no habitable dwellings on them, and 10% is state and federal land that can’t be taxed, so it should not cost the state or another locality anything to enact such legislation. Ms. Dowd believes this new proposed legislation would be a fair and equitable form of a user-fee concept, and she believes it is constitutional.
Moving forward with this model would consist of a two-step process. The Virginia General Assembly would have to provide authority for the county to tax in such a way. If approved, the county would have to enact an ordinance to exercise that authority, complete with a public hearing. In addition, just because authority is granted to the county, that does not mean the county is obligated to enforce the tax.
By the end of the month, the county plans to take the idea of special legislation to Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell, as well as to Senator Creigh Deeds who can take the request to the state legislature. Time will also be designated for the public to provide input at the Board of Supervisors’ regular monthly work session on Wednesday, November 15th. Additional comments from this upcoming meeting will be considered in the request to Delegate Bell and Senator Deeds.
In other business, the board discussed holding a future public hearing about the town of Monterey requesting an easement from the county in order to extend a sewer line on the eastern portion of town. The board is also seeking more information and future options regarding the Forest Service closing the restrooms at the top of Shenandoah Mountain during winter. In addition, reassessment notices are planned to be mailed to residents this week, with the first assessor’s hearings beginning on Thursday, November 16th.