County to study Woodland EMS issue

Published 8:23 am Tuesday, June 7, 2011

JACKSON — Northampton County officials are studying the possibility of placing a satellite EMS station in Woodland and have decided to start collecting unpaid ambulance bills by utilizing a debt set off program.

On Monday, County Manager Wayne Jenkins presented a letter sent by Woodland Mayor Jay Jenkins concerning Woodland EMS, which is being returned to volunteer status at the end of the month after operating financially this budget year with a $60,000 debt.

The letter focused on the proposition from the Woodland Town Board of Commissioners to county officials about the possibility of placing a county operated satellite EMS station in the town to cover the eastern part of the county.

“We would like for you to consider taking over operations of Woodland EMS,” the letter states. “We would like to join forces with the County in developing a plan that would be of mutual agreement that Northampton County be offered our equipment at a cost far less than what could be purchased on the market and a facility already in working order.”

County Manager Jenkins said Woodland EMS currently has staff on paid status that comes in and keep the facility open 24 hours a day.

“That has been a tremendous benefit to the county, (because) there are times when all of the county’s resources are committed,” he said.

Jenkins added the smaller EMS squads like Woodland, Jackson and Conway-Severn are important to the county, but he thought the commissioners needed to respond to the matter at hand and the mayor’s letter.

Commissioner Robert Carter said he thought Woodland was proposing that the county take over the station, but volunteers would come in and assist when needed.

Jenkins said the long range emergency services plan was to place 24-hour satellite stations in the western end of the county, which has been completed, and in another phase place one in the eastern portion somewhere along NC 35, possibly near centrally located Milwaukee.

“Mr. (Chuck) Joyner (EMS Director) put the funds in the budget this year to do that, to open a satellite station, but it didn’t make it through the first step (of the budget process), it had to be removed,” he said. “The plan is still on the table to do that.”

Jenkins said what he understood from the letter and the two conversations he had with Mayor Jay Jenkins was that they were asking the county to come in an evaluate and assess if it is feasible to partner with the town of Woodland for a station, rather than the county invest in capital somewhere else along NC 35 to construct a station.

Carter questioned if the move to the Woodland site would save revenues the county would have to expend in constructing a satellite station.

Jenkins said it would as long as the Woodland facility met building and enforcement codes concerning sleeping facilities and a sprinkler system, as the county just went through to update Wildwood Fire Department for the western county satellite station.

“If all the stars line up and we can use that facility, yes, it would prevent us from making capital expenditures at this time,” said Jenkins.

He added very likely, at some point in time, if the board chose to move ahead and the facility is feasible, there will probably be a need for another crew.

“The reason for that is that there is so much (ambulance) activity coming out Jackson, within 10 miles of Jackson, that most of the time our two ambulances are tied up,” Jenkins said. The board, by consensus, authorized Jenkins to study the matter further.

“This is not something that can happen overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”

Commission Chair Fannie Greene agreed by saying she was not ready to make a decision.

Meanwhile, the commissioners voted to authorize County Finance Officer Dot Vick to begin using debt set off as a means of recovering unpaid ambulance bills.

Joyner appeared before the board to present the recommendation to utilize a debt set off program available to counties through the state.

Joyner said Northampton County Ambulance Service currently sends a patient three invoices and after the third invoice, there is no further action taken and the debt is written off as a loss at the end of five years. The average cost per trip for an ambulance call is $350 to $400 and approximately 50 percent of bills are written off.

“With the budgets like they are now, I just don’t see how we can continue this,” he said.

Debt set off would allow Northampton to recover delinquent debt by off setting state tax refunds and lottery winnings to recover delinquent debt.

“That would give us (the county) another avenue to recover debt and put it back into the general fund to offset our expenses,” Joyner said.

“Do you know how much we have that haven’t come in,” asked Commission Vice Chair James Hester.

Joyner said he didn’t know at that moment, but could provide those figures later.

Carter asked about the debt set off program being used by other county departments.

Vick said that it was being used by both the Tax and Health departments.

Carter questioned with the implementation of the debt set off would the five year period still be in effect.

Jenkins said it would still be in effect

“We could have a (patient) that does precede the state income tax return,” he said.

Greene asked where the county would fall among taxes and health department fees and other agencies collecting state tax returns.

Tax Administrator Cathy Allen responded taxes would come first.

Vick noted there is a collecting procedure that prioritizes debts with federal and state at the top.

“Anything federal, student loans or federal loans, they get that first before the county gets anything,” she said.

Carter moved to approve the utilization of debt set off to collect unpaid ambulance bills. Hester seconded the motion and the measure passed without objection.