Montgomery County will start charging hundreds of dollars to use an ambulance in January, after the volunteer firefighters and county leadership reached an agreement that stopped the firefighters' efforts to put the issue on the November ballot.

The agreement prompted the firefighters to stop collecting signatures for a ballot initiative against the ambulance fee several weeks ago, said Eric Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

The deadline for turning in the 31,092 valid county signatures needed to get the issue on the ballot is Aug. 26, but half of the signatures needed to be submitted by last Friday.

When a similar ambulance fee bill was on the November 2010 ballot, 54 percent of voters rejected it. At County Executive Ike Leggett's urging, the county council passed a new version in May.

The county will begin charging between $400 and $800 for an ambulance ride in January. Leggett said bills will go straight to insurance companies and the county will pay whatever the insurers don't.

The county expects to raise $18 million a year, about 60 percent of which will come from Medicare and Medicaid, Leggett said.

However, Leggett could not say what would happen to the roughly 1 percent of patients who do not live in the county. Not wanting to charge non-county residents was the main reason for the volunteer firefighters' referendum effort.

But Bernard said that problem has been solved. The county is waiting for the state and federal government to confirm that the bill allows the county to not charge non-residents, he said.

The agreement signed Monday by Leggett and Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association President Marcine Goodloe resolves some long-standing fights between the county-paid and volunteer firefighters. For example, it guarantees that the volunteers will be able to bargain over their use of official fire and rescue service vehicles -- essentially take-home vehicles -- that were paid for by the volunteers but are maintained by the county, which has long been a source of tension.