Some Montgomery County residents say the county's volunteer firefighters betrayed them when they dropped efforts to challenge the county's ambulance fee.

The Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association, or MCVFRA, began collecting signatures to get the measure on the ballot shortly after the County Council passed it -- at County Executive Ike Leggett's urging -- in May. The bill, which charges between $300 and $800 per ambulance ride, was rejected by 54 percent of voters in 2010.

But earlier this month, the firefighters announced they had stopped collecting signatures. They had struck a deal with Leggett guaranteeing them a cut of the revenue that the fee brings in and protecting their right to bargain over historically tense topics.

For some residents, the deal came as a shock.

"I was absolutely stunned because they kept putting out news that, 'We're still collecting signatures,' " said Derwood resident Brad Botwin. "Meanwhile, they're having all these meetings with Leggett. ... We found out what these guys are made of, and it's 10 percent of the money."

Others agree that the deal felt dirty.

"That [deal] is criminal," said Mitford Mathews, who lives in Rockville. "[Leggett] bribed [MCVFRA Executive Director Eric Bernard] to get the volunteers to stop, and what he's doing is he's putting my tax money into the pockets of people to get them to shut up, and that bothers me."

Had Mathews known that the firefighters were ending their petition drive, he would have worked to keep it going, he said.

Though the deal was announced mid-August, after the deadline to turn in half of the necessary 31,092 signatures, Bernard said then that the firefighters stopped collecting signatures two weeks earlier.

That timing upset Potomac resident Kimberly Samperton.

"I had to voice my total disgust with the deal, and the timing of the deal, between the volunteer firefighters and the county executive that prevented anyone else from gathering enough signatures to put the issue to another vote on the November ballot," she wrote in a letter to members of the County Council.

Neither MCVFRA President Marcine Goodloe nor Bernard could be reached for comment.