New directions

Published 4:49 pm Wednesday, January 22, 2014

WINDSOR – At the Bertie County Board of Commissioners’ midyear planning session held here this past weekend to prepare for the upcoming budget process, the board focused primarily on the issue of sustaining the countywide EMS Paramedic system.

Later, the board voted unanimously to implement a comprehensive EMS Paramedic program with a fully operational non-emergency transport service, projected to provide additional revenue. The new service would also avoid placing further burdens on Bertie County taxpayers.

On Dec. 8 of last year First Med, the county’s private emergency services provider, shut down all operations across the country, catching Bertie County off guard.

Bertie County Board of Commissioners Chairman J. Wallace Perry called for an emergency meeting of the board a day later when the county initially learned of First Med’s plans to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The Board approved Perry’s call for a State of Emergency and initiated an immediate contingency plan with offers of temporary employment to existing First Med personnel and seizure of the company’s assets with the county attorneys’ effort to seek a temporary restraining order, which was filed that afternoon and approved by resident Superior Court Judge Quentin T. Sumner the following morning.

The Board of Commissioners lifted the State of Emergency proclamation 30 days later.

On Dec. 12, at a second emergency meeting, the Board voted unanimously to maintain County operated EMS Paramedic service for the remainder of the fiscal year through June 30, 2014 and appropriated $1.2 million to cover those costs.

On Dec. 18, then Washington County Emergency Management Director Robert Clary, since retired, made a presentation to the board at their second monthly meeting to convince the governing body that sustaining the EMS Paramedic program would be possible with the development of a business plan that included non-emergency transport services in the county’s EMS vehicles.

This past weekend at the retreat-planning session, Clary, now an EMS consultant for Bertie County, presented a two hour detailed fiscal analysis, numbers of which project that if operating as EMS transport alone, the county’s operational deficit for emergency paramedic services could range anywhere from three-quarters of a million dollars to $1.1 million a year.

“It would be between $813,577 and $1,138,280 on an annual basis,” said Clary. “And that’s without the support of a non-emergency transport component.”

Meanwhile, with the deficit, the impact for the taxpayers would be an increase in the property tax rate ranging 7 to 10 cents per $100 assessed valuation, according to County Manager Scott Sauer.

Sauer later clarified the impact of the County’s potential operating deficit calculated by the EMS consultant, as compared with the various bids that were received from local transport companies this past spring. He emphasized that the bid proposals constituted a recurring annual appropriation, requiring a major tax increase and paid as a subsidy to the private operators who are unable to make a profit with the Emergency Paramedic Service.

“Bertie County would be well advised to augment the emergency Paramedic program with the establishment of non-emergency transport services for movement of patients between facilities,” Clary emphasized.

Perry said the board owed it to the people of the county to do whatever it takes to provide emergency Paramedic services for all citizens without a tax increase.

Sauer pointed out that had the First Med bid that was accepted last summer been rejected in favor of one of the higher bids from a local transport company, the taxpayers would have been hit with an immediate tax rate increase ranging from 6-to-12 cents.

Because of the time frame, bids weren’t reviewed until after the beginning of the new fiscal year in July 2013. According to Sauer, the General Fund reserves would have absorbed the year-one impact, followed by a tax rate increase for FY 2014-2015.

Additionally, Sauer said the local transport providers are already making significant profits and were looking to the county for a taxpayer subsidy, hitting Bertie citizens with a tax rate increase of at least 6 to 12 cents, a burden that would grow over time.

The County Manager further stated that the steps the Board was taking now and in the next few months will provide the greatest taxpayer protection for the immediate and near future, while ensuring that all residents receive uniform service and response times at the highest quality pre-hospital level of emergency care possible through Paramedic services.

“The private providers have different motivation (profit) while the Board of Commissioners is seeking to provide fair and equal access to emergency care for 21,000 residents who are spread over a 700 square mile geographic area,” Sauer said.

The board was advised by County Attorney Lloyd Smith that there was “a compelling public interest” in taking steps to provide a long term, financially sound EMS Paramedic program and non-emergency transport service for the county’s citizens.

Clary also provided a step by step series of recommendations to initiate a full complement of Paramedic and Transport services with a business plan to sustain the operation without negatively impacting the taxpayers.

“We need to direct our CountyAttorney to review the existing ambulance transport ordinance so that we can evaluate the best approach to getting up and running as recommended by our consultant,” said Commissioner John Trent.

After much discussion with statements of support from each Commissioner, Vice Chairman Charles Smith offered a motion to proceed with the EMS Paramedic and non-emergency transport service as recommended, and the motion was seconded by Commissioner Ronald Wesson.

The vote was unanimous.

Congratulating his fellow commissioners on their vote, Commissioner Rick Harrell said, “Gentlemen, this a good decision for Bertie County.”