Fire levy: allocated, debated

After voting unanimously to distribute $156,000 among the county’s seven fire and rescue companies at its regular meeting Monday afternoon (Aug. 5), the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors found itself fielding comments from several of the companies’ volunteers imploring the board to reconsider the way it formulates this twice-annual allocation of fire levy funds.

The first such comment came from Flint Hill Volunteer Fire & Rescue president Richard Brady, who described the system for assigning funding to the companies as “murky . . . it needs to be better explained and laid out.”

Brady, who said he has been closely involved with the FHVFR for six years, said there seemed to be little year-to-year consistency in the amounts allocated to each company. “You need to decide exactly what the funding is based on,” said Brady, who advocated a system that balanced the size of the call area with the total number of volunteers.

“I shouldn’t be punished just because another company might have [more] volunteers than me,” Brady added.

Chester Gap Fire & Rescue chief Todd Brown echoed Brady’s comments, as did Amissville Fire & Rescue president Scott Chamberlin and Chester Gap’s company treasurer Maybelle Gilkey. Brown, whose Chester Gap volunteers answer calls in both Rappahannock and Warren counties, said he was content with being “the low man on the totem pole” in terms of funding (Chester Gap’s fire levy allocation is the smallest), but agreed with Brady that the basis for assigning those funds should be reevaluated.

Brown also complained that problems with the county’s dispatch center had forced his company to respond to fewer calls and cited several examples of calls that came in from the Chester Gap zone that they were never dispatched to.

“If I don’t get dispatched, how can I run the calls?” Brown wondered.

Responding to Brown’s and Brady’s comments, County Administrator John McCarthy characterized the current funding system as “a compromise . . . which means everyone hates it.” McCarthy added that because the county has seven fire and rescue companies — five fire-and-rescue companies and, in Sperryville, one fire company and one rescue squad — it is “wholly overserved” by the companies.

Rappahannock, McCarthy suggested, is moving toward the day when it will have to fund a paid fire and rescue company instead of relying solely on volunteer companies, something the county wants to continue doing “as long as we possibly can.”

One of the reasons the system may seem unfair, McCarthy said, is that the fire levy distribution does not take into account how many calls each company responds to.

“Your complaints are legitimate and fair . . . I’m not going to defend [the current funding system],” he said. “It’s definitely going to need to change . . . but these questions are just the start of the fight, not the end.”

The supervisors granted McCarthy permission to seek possible solutions and changes to the fire levy funding system.

In an early step expected to significantly increase funds available to emergency responders, the supervisors also unanimously approved McCarthy’s recommendation to award a contract for EMS cost recovery billing services to Fidelis Inc. 

The cost-recovery program, a nearly year-long project by the county and the Rappahannock County Fire & Rescue Association, enables the county to begin billing insurance carriers for trips made by volunteer rescue squads from any location in Rappahannock County to a hospital or medical facility.

The ordinance, adopted in May, includes a “compassionate billing” feature — automatic waivers for anyone who has a 911 address in the county, and hardship allowances for anyone not able to pay. If you live in the county (and/or qualify for the financial hardship exemption), you’re not responsible for any portion of the fee not paid by insurance. (If you have no insurance, the fee will be waived.)

McCarthy said he expects the program to generate annually at least $250,000, and possibly as much as $400,000 — funds that will be earmarked to support volunteer rescue squads.

“I just want to stress that people with no insurance will still be picked up,” said Hampton district supervisor S. Bryant Lee.

Scenic . . . Rappahannock

Scenic Virginia executive director Leighton Powell, present at the request of Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish, gave the supervisors a brief presentation on the history and goals of Scenic Virginia, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to preserving Virginia’s historic and natural beauty. 

Founded in 1998, Powell said the organization is particularly interested in Rappahannock County because of its abundance of beautiful scenery. “I drove over here today, and what a view,” Powell marvelled. “A scenic masterpiece made perfect by nature.”

The supervisors had some questions for Powell, who said she’d be thrilled to work with the board to continue preserving Rappahannock’s natural beauty. Parrish and Lee both wondered about preserving the views by encouraging new residents to not build on top of mountains and obstruct the view for neighbors.

Powell admitted it’s a tricky task to balance landowners’ rights with viewshed conservation, while maintaining an area’s welcoming atmosphere — but one worth figuring out. Powell also promised to send the supervisors materials describing how other jurisdictions in the state have dealt with such issues; Rappahannock, she insisted, was an example she wanted the rest of Virginia to emulate.

“We’re not anti-development at all,” Powell insisted. “We’re the most pro-developmental conservation group I know of . . . But let’s do it the right way.”