In Controversial Decision, Town of Chevy Chase Grants $60,000 To Rescue Squad
The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad says it needs to buy a new ambulance for $230,000. The Town of Chevy Chase has a budget surplus of about $8 million. B-CC Rescue Squad President Brooke Davies thought the rescue and firefighting services the volunteer organization provides to the Town would be enough to get a $230,000 donation from its Council. But Wednesday, after pleas from residents both for and against the donation and a nasty debate spurred by one councilmember, Davies came away with a $60,000 donation that won't cover the ambulance unless more donors are found. "We hope you find that magic donor," Mayor Pat Burda told Davies. "This was our magic donor," Davies said. At issue was whether the Town, a half-square mile area of almost 3,000 people, should dip in to its surplus to help the Rescue Squad, which provides service to all of Bethesda, Chevy Chase and other parts of the county and Northwest D.C. Rescue Squad volunteers go on door-knocking fundraising campaigns yearly. But the organization recently lost a major donor, the Healthcare Initiative Foundation, and faces a $200,000 operating deficit. The Rescue Squad does not receive a regular appropriated budget from any government and has refused grants from Montgomery County in the past because of its opposition to the county's ambulance fee. The Town of Chevy Chase has a contribution policy that allows it to give grants to organizations for capital projects. Davies, a Town of Chevy Chase resident, originally requested $520,000 for two new ambulances to replace two older ones when she came to the Council in the summer. The most the Town has ever given in a grant is $60,000 to a local school project. "Many residents do not benefit from the schools," one resident in support of the donation said Wednesday. "We know neither the day nor the time when we will have to call on [the Rescue Squad]." Davies testified that the Rescue Squad annually provides about $70,000 to $80,000 in service to the Town alone, based on the number of calls received. Davies said the 76-year-old organization maintains its independence because it allows for more innovation and for the Squad to have more flexibility with staffing. "It's a basic function of government that should not be served through a volunteer squad," said Bruce Lerner, a resident who spoke up against the donation. "I agree that the B-CC Rescue Squad does a tremendous service, but I don't think this town should be in the business of funding it from taxpayer dollars." One resident against the donation said funding essential emergency services shouldn't be done outside of the Town's budget. "We have an obligation to talk to Town residents, come up with a plan for that surplus and then put it in the budget," she said. Residents who spoke were split about evenly on the issue. One relayed the story of his heart attack, and how the B-CC Rescue Squad's prompt response likely played a role in saving his life. Then, the real sparks began. Councilmember Al Lang said he supported the donation. "Yes, it's a lot of money. It's about three percent of our total surplus, so we're not acting recklessly. I would hate to see something, in my opinion, that's as valuable as this potential service held up because we don't have a policy for it again," Lang said. "I'm tired of being called a Nimby. But this gives us a chance to do something, whether other municipalities do it or not, because it's a chance to help other municipalities as well as ourselves." Davies told the Council the other Chevy Chase incorporated areas either declined to donate or claimed the town doesn't have a capital grant policy. Davies said Chevy Chase Village talked about making a donation next year. Burda and Councilmember Kathy Strom said the Council should table the grant until the Town can complete its visioning process for its surplus money. There is a visioning workshop for residents scheduled in January. That led John Bickerman, the newest councilmember, to lambaste his colleagues. "This Town has had years to set up a process and for my colleagues tonight to say, 'Hey, the merits are great. But we need a process,' I think it is an absolute dereliction of duty," Bickerman said. "If there are not three votes to support the purchase of an ambulance, then what is it to the person who needs a response? We got the money. It's no skin off of our nose. It's not gonna affect us one bit. It gives us a chance to look good. After listening to my colleagues, I'm outraged. I'm absolutely outraged." Councilmember and Town Treasurer David Lublin pointed out the Town only achieved its significant surplus in the last two years. Burda said Bickerman's characterization was inaccurate. Lang moved to make the donation $60,000, to match the largest grant the Town has given. "While $60,000 is a great amount, we can't use that for a purchase of an ambulance," Davies said. "We're not gonna be spending any money until we get it fully funded." The Council voted 4-1 for the $60,000 grant. Bickerman opposed it.