story by Ryan Saylor
The Sebastian County Quorum Court met Monday evening (Aug. 25) at the county courthouse in Greenwood and approved placing an ambulance fee increase on the November ballot.
Residents of nine Sebastian County cities and unincorporated communities currently receive emergency medical and rescue service from the county. Households in the cities — Bonanza, Central City, Greenwood, Hackett, Hartford, Huntington, Lavaca, Mansfield and Midland — currently pay an annual fee of $18 to be included in the service area.
County Judge David Hudson originally approached the Quorum Court on Aug. 20 requesting an ambulance fee increase from $18 to $65 annually, a raise of $47 or 261.11%.
The current $18 fee, collected annually with personal property taxes, has been in place since 1986. It collects $250,000, or about 18.24% of the ambulance service budget of $1.37 million.
Billing of insurance companies and individuals for use of the service during emergency runs makes up $500,000 of the budget, while $620,452 of the ambulance service's budget comes from the general fund.
With 14,000 households in the service area, the increase sought by Hudson would have brought in an additional $658,000. That increase would have meant ambulance fees would bring in a total of $908,000, or 66.26% of the ambulance service's budget. The remainder would have been covered by ambulance run billing.
"The overall Sebastian County budget is constrained to meet various governmental operation needs as we approach the 2015 Budget," Hudson wrote in an Aug. 4 memo to the court. "The increase of General Fund allocation to support Sebastian County EMS that has occurred over the last several years to bring the ambulance service up to current standards with two full time 24 hour paramedic crews is the basis for the fee increase to continue to support this service.”
But at the Aug. 20 regular meeting of the court, justices balked at an increase of 261.11% and instead proposed an increase of $25 for a total of $43 per year. The increase amounts to an increase of 138.89% annually.
On an annual basis, the increase would bring in an additional $350,000, meaning ambulance fees would equal $600,000, or 43.78% of the $1.37 million annual budget.
Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper, whose Huntington district would be impacted by the proposed increase, said he wanted assurances that money from any increases would only be used for the EMS service versus going into the overall general fund.
"I don't want to raise a fee to create a surplus in the general fund to pay for something else. That's my big hang up. If we increase the fee, let's make sure that the fee goes to the ambulance service," he said.
Looper, who has been known to rail against funding of other projects in the general fund like the Ben Geren Golf Course, said he was not necessarily against the fee increase for rural ambulance should it be approved by voters in the affected communities on Nov. 4 so long as the money is set aside for the specific use of the EMS service.
He added that the general fund should always be used for necessity versus want.
"The general fund is to be used for emergency services, the sheriff. I hate to say that we're running a deficit (by providing service like EMS service) because that's what the general fund is for," Looper explained. "And even with the $25 (fee increase), we will still have money coming out of the general fund.”
To drive the point home, Looper introduced an amendment Monday evening that stipulates that all monies raised from the increase must go to a line item in the county's budget called the "Ambulance Improvement Fund" and can only be used for "improvements, expansion or enhancements to the current ambulance service.”
"In no way shall these funds be used to replace the current general fund allocation of $620,000, which is the 2014 budgeted amount," the amendment read. "These funds, however, can be used to prevent any increase above the $620,000 coming from the general fund.”
The amendment passed 9-4, with Justices Danny Aldridge, Don Carter, Jim Medley and Rhonda Royal voting against Looper's amendment.