Lawsuit filed in W. Va. county over ambulance fee
The lawsuit alleges that since the fees are improperly imposed, residents will “continue the undue hardship and financial burden of defending their rights against” the law firm
Bluefield Daily Telegraph, W.Va.
UNION, W. Va. — A class action lawsuit has been filed in Monroe County Circuit Court related to an ambulance fee imposed in 2017 on residential property owners.
County commissioners approved the controversial fee of $100 a year per property to pay for ambulance service, which the county is required to provide by state law.
Protests surfaced after the fee was imposed, with only about 60 percent collections last year and community meetings to voice concerns.
The lawsuit was filed by Pearisburg, Va. attorney Jason Ballard on behalf of Monroe County resident Gary Campbell, “individually, and … all others similarly situated,” seeks “injunctive relief, declaratory judgment and monetary recovery for the damages…”
According to the lawsuit, county commission “improperly” handled the fees and did not “deposit its collected fees into a special ambulance fund as required by statute … Instead, the commission deposited the collected fees into its general fund.”
“Since August of 2017, the commission has operated and continues to operate its ordinance in direct contravention of W.Va. Code,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit also says the commission is required by the state to appoint a board of five to 15 people for “management and control of any authority, its operations, business and affairs…”
However, the lawsuit added, prior to enacting the ordinance “the commission did not create or otherwise assemble a board” to “operate the affairs of the ambulance service authority… Instead the commission itself directly managed, controlled, and operated all related affairs including, but not limited to, its collected fees pursuant to the enacted ordinance … the commission continues to directly manage, control, and operate numerous affairs directly related to the ordinance … The foregoing is in direct contravention of the Emergency Ambulance Service Act of 1975 …”
The lawsuit said residential property owners in Monroe County “have been and continue to be wrongfully subjected to the imposition of the fee as presently imposed by the commission.”
After many residents did not pay the $100 fee, the county hired a firm, Feuchtenberger & Barringer Legal Corp. of Princeton to collect unpaid fees.
The lawsuit alleges that since the fees are improperly imposed, residents will “continue the undue hardship and financial burden of defending their rights against” the law firm.
County Commission President Bill Miller said the county has hired Beckley attorney Victor Flanagan for representation in the suit.
“Our attorney told us not to make any comments on it,” Miller said.
Although he can’t talk about the specifics of the lawsuit, Miller said he is looking forward to complete the legal process.
“We will see how it works out,” he said. “It will take all the guesswork out of it. We will go through the court and I think we’ll be all right.”
The ambulance service issue surfaced in early 2017 when the Union Rescue Squad was going out of business over financial problems and sold out to Greenbrier Ambulance Service.
In an article earlier this year, Miller said that “Greenbrier took all their debt and their equipment. We had no power over that.”
Greenbrier (based in Lewisburg) then came to Monroe County, he said, and told commissioners they would continue to provide service and “make it work,” but then came back three months later and said “no money can be made.”
“Then we had to start looking to serve the population of the county on the Union end,” Miller said, referring to the fact that the county is obligated by law to provide an ambulance service if one is not available.
Peterstown Fire and Rescue covers the eastern/southern portion of the county, but that also presented a problem.
“We met with Peterstown and they said they will be in the same shape as Union was in three to four years,” he said. “It is easier to put it on the whole county (rather than on the Union side only). That is what we agreed to on this.”
Ambulance services were asked to estimate the needed annual supplements to be able to run in the county, providing a crew ready to go 16 hours a day.
“We worked off those figures and came up with $100,” he said. “If we collect all of it maybe we could lower it (the $100).”
Public meetings had been held before the ordinance was passed, he said.
The plan was to use the money from the fee to supplement Greenbrier and Peterstown with $260,000 a year each, with $40,000 going to Alderson for backup when needed and $5,000 to Paint Bank, another reserve squad when needed.
Miller said that would put an ambulance on duty 16 hours a day, with on-call personnel being used the other eight hours if needed.
“The ambulance services cost about $800 to $900 a call to transport,” he said. “If they collect back $300, they are lucky to do that on Medicare.”
Miller also said that if an ambulance is called and transport is then refused, “they get nothing.”
That is why rural, sparsely populated counties like Monroe (13,600 estimated population in 2016) struggle to provide the service, compared to Mercer County with a population of more than 60,000.
With that many people and two major hospitals that often need transports, enough calls come in to cover the service and residents pay no fees or taxes to support it.
The Bluefield Rescue Squad and Princeton Rescue Squad serve Mercer County and are self-sustaining because of the volume of calls.
All proceeds from the ambulance fee are to go toward salaries only.
Since all-volunteer departments have fallen by the wayside for the most part, it adds that extra huge expense.
With trained ambulance personnel making about $70,000 a year including workman’s compensation and insurance, support is necessary, Peterstown Fire and Rescue Chief Jerry “Boomer” Brown said.
At a county commission meeting in March after a community meeting in Peterstown was held to protest the fee, Commissioner Kevin Mann said they are open to any needed changes in the fee.
“How are we supposed to do it?” he said. “I was not happy about it. It upset everybody. We have to try to fix it if we can get this better. We tried to get the state to help fund it.”
The issue of how the county can collect unpaid fees was also addressed at that commission meeting.
Lewis Buckland, president of the planning commission, spoke at the meeting and said the county is not the first to enact an ambulance fee “and we won’t be the last” and it’s not the first to meet controversy.
State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office was contacted about the issue, he said, and an opinion was received.
Monroe County Clerk Donnie Evans said the questions to the AG related to the county having a legal right to collect the unpaid fees through a collection agency and/or civil action.
Both means are acceptable options, according to the AG opinion, Evans said.
Miller also said creating in ambulance authority was considered but met with opposition and the commissioners did not think a levy would be approved by voters.
Miller said the ordinance and the process used related to the fee had been vetted by an attorney retained by the county and he was told it was “as legal as it can be.”
Miller did say the county has had issues with making sure all residential property owners are being billed properly, with some being left out of the billing process and others exonerated. A new billing system is being used to help solve those problems.
The county was also criticized for not being transparent enough and Miller said the county did need to take a look at how to do a better job communicating with residents.
The bottom line is, Miller said in March, the county has to provide for an ambulance service and the commissioners have done what they are convinced is the right thing to do.
Flanagan could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit.
Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org
©2019 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)