County could rethink ‘controversial’ takeover of Washington Township EMS

Published 12:48 am Saturday, November 19, 2016

County commissioners could back away from taking over EMS coverage in Washington Township.

In October, the Board of Commissioners voted not to renew its contract with the City of Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS, which has long provided EMS service to Washington Township. Washington Township encompasses a large area of northwestern Beaufort County: north to south, from the Martin County line to U.S. Highway 264; east to west, from just east of Washington to the Pitt County line.

The decision was, in part, based on county officials’ desire to provide consistent paramedic-level service to all Beaufort County residents, regardless of where they live. The response, however, to the potential change in service has been questions for many people who live in the area. It’s a decision county Commissioner Hood Richardson called “controversial” during the board’s Nov. 7 meeting. Other county residents, such as Tommy Lilley, who lives off of U.S. 264 on Tranter’s Creek Drive, call it concerning.

Lilley spoke of those concerns during the public comment period of the recent meeting. And there are several of them, he said.

“I’m not opposed to going paramedic. I think everyone is interested in all of our services going to paramedic-level,” Lilley said.

Nor is Lilley concerned about the half-cent tax increase that would help offset costs, he said.

In October, the Board of Commissioners approved that tax increase when they voted not to renew the county’s contract with the City of Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS for coverage of Washington Township. The county looked at three scenarios in making the decision: renew the contract with the City of Washington at $157,255, a 2-percent increase over last year’s contract; contract with the city to provide a paramedic-level ambulance dedicated to EMS calls only at $572,000; or have Beaufort County EMS take over Washington Township to provide paramedic-level service to the area at a cost of approximately $121,000 from the county’s general fund. The remainder of the cost would be offset by the EMS tax revenue — 5 cents per $100 valuation of property for those in Washington Township — along with billing revenue.

What Lilley and others are primarily concerned about is response times. Because of their locations at stations on Market Street and West 15th Street near U.S. 264, Washington EMS ambulances have good response times to areas both west and north of the city. Should access to those two available ambulances be reduced to one Beaufort County EMS ambulance, where that ambulance is stationed could mean parts of Washington Township could end up with slower response times, Lilley said.

County Manager Brian Alligood said both Clark’s Neck Volunteer Fire Department and Old Ford Volunteer Fire Department have offered to house the Beaufort County EMS ambulance.

“From our perspective, the Old Ford area is more centrally located, based on the geography of the district — it’s a large district,” Alligood said.

Lilley said it’s not just geography that matters: placement of that ambulance at Old Ford would move it farther away from the more populous areas of Washington Township where most of the EMS calls originate, primarily along U.S. 264 west of Washington and up Market Street Extension, north of town.

“If they’re going to put it at Old Ford, it’s not just me that’s being affected — it’s the largest population of Washington Township that’s going to be affected,” Lilley said.

Lilley was one of approximately 40 people who attended an Oct. 27 forum on the issue hosted by the men’s fellowship group at Old Ford Church of Christ. Alligood, E-911 communications Director Vic Williams and Board of Commissioners Chairman Jerry Langley were there to take questions and explain what the shift to Beaufort County EMS would entail. Ed Bolen, a member of the hosting group, said he heard a lot of concern from people that night, largely because they were unsure of what the change would mean for them.

“It was really people just concerned the response was going to be worse. It wasn’t that the tax would go up and cost more, because in the whole scheme of things, that’s really not a lot of money. It was care and response times,” Bolen said.

Bolen spoke about how one resident with health issues, who has called on EMS on several occasions, brought up his concerns at the meeting.

“It was someone who lived in Beaufort Heights. Right now, the fire station’s right around the corner, but at Old Ford, it would take them 15 minutes to get there,” Bolen said. “I think the concern is the unknown, and the fact that they couldn’t see anything that would be any kind of faster response than what they have already.”

For those within Washington Township, response time has been at the forefront, but those looking at the decision from a larger perspective say the county is going to end up spending more money than the $121,000 estimated appropriation from the general fund.

The total yearly estimated cost for the county to staff and run a single paramedic-level ambulance is $491,302. According to county numbers, Washington Township tax revenue will offset that cost by $187,183, and EMS billing revenue for the area would offset it by a further $183,000, which leaves the gap of $121,110 to be appropriated from the general fund.

However, according to Washington city Manager Bobby Roberson and Chief Financial Officer Matt Rauschenbach, the expectation of $183,000 in EMS billing revenue is incorrect.

According to the city officials, 100 percent of all EMS trips, and all EMS billing revenue, for Washington Township will account for only $79,596 in 2016; state Medicaid reimbursement, an additional $20,000. If the expected projection of $183,000 is, in reality, more like $100,000, the county will have to make up the difference.

“Where’s that money going to come from?” Lilley asked. “Now that $121,000 and any other money coming up short will have to come out of the general fund. The whole county will be paying to support it.”

Alligood said the EMS billing revenue estimation came from the county’s EMS consultant.

Rauschenbach and Roberson also pointed out that the county’s not renewing the contract with the city puts more than just a $157,256 hole in the city’s budget: the city also will not have the billing revenue. The total impact on the city budget is more like $256,160, according to their documentation.

Lilley said until the next commissioners meeting, he’s going to be doing what he can to educate Washington Township residents about the issue, and creating and circulating a petition.

“At least we can let county commissioners know that we’re concerned and hopefully get them to reconsider and work something out with Washington,” Lilley said.

Alligood said the subject will likely be brought up again in the December commissioners meeting. In the November meeting, there was discussion about bringing stakeholders together to hash out the options.

“If the people in that area are unhappy with what we’ve done, I have no problem with putting together a committee with all areas out there and talk about it,” Commissioner Robert Belcher said at the time. “I have no problem rescinding my vote if that’s what they want.”