Ambulance talk eyes county tax

One funding request already given the OK seemed to be just the kick start needed for a brief discussion this week on the future of ambulance services to cover all of Garvin County.

For all three county commissioners a regular weekly meeting Monday started with a request from Stratford EMS to get some or all of the $36,700 in county funds approved this past summer.

Approval for half the funding now and the rest in January did come as discussions quickly jumped to the need to help each EMS service in the county pay for all their emergency runs, especially those outside of city limits and into the rural areas.

Although a handful of possibilities are being considered, it was a former county commissioner, Johnny Mann, who stepped up to agree with Garvin County's emergency management director, Dave Johnson, a county sales tax up for renewal next year could be one possible solution.

“Maybe we have the opportunity to use that sales tax to address this need. I'm hoping maybe redefine how we use that tax money,” Johnson said about the half-cent county sales tax going back to voters in July 2021.

When the seven-year tax was last approved it earmarked revenue for the county sheriff’s department, county commissioners for roads and the county’s 911 dispatch center, while a portion went into the county’s general fund.

Mann attended the meeting in support of Stratford EMS, but quickly turned his attention to a seven-year tax he helped get passed twice – once in 2007 and then in 2014.

He told commissioners Kenneth Holden, Gary Ayres and Mike Gollihare some of that funding, if the tax is renewed, should go to help the EMS services in the county.

“You need to put something in there for EMS, and I would like to see a pinch go to senior citizens,” Mann said about the tax revenue.

“You need to reword it to help EMS and help senior citizens. If you do that firefighters and EMS services would be out supporting the tax. I guarantee you these towns will get behind an EMS tax just like the fire department tax. I'll help you all I can in Stratford and Wynnewood.

“COVID is going to pass this and these guys will support you,” he said, while gesturing to EMS officials at the meeting.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Dillingham and Johnson have for months been researching the possible options on ways to improve and fund ambulance services in the county.

During Monday's meeting she said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed that process way down since it's prevented face-to-face meetings and input from all the towns in the county.

“We want to generate the revenue in a transparent and fair manner in these rural areas,” Dillingham said.

“The question is what kind of ambulance service do you want. If we get a consensus on that we can figure out what to do. It doesn't have to be a 522,” she said, referring to 522 districts established to provide EMS services.

“We're trying to get a consensus on what the citizens expectations are.”

She says there are options on ways to possibly fund the different ambulance services, such as a public trust, sales or property tax increases and bonds.

“We have to have a long-range plan. We can't get that until we engage with our citizens. We have got to literally have a meeting about what you expect.

“We're not married to any funding source because we don't know what the public wants. We're just trying to start this conversation with the ambulance services. There is a big exploratory information process that we can't engage in until we can have some town hall meetings.”

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It was back in July when commissioners approved more than $36,000 to support Stratford EMS and funding needed to help pay for service calls out into the rural areas.

Shannon Tice said the EMS service has the same problem as most others in the county – no funding sources to cover the ambulance runs outside of the city limits.

“We are financially independent. We have a sales tax that pays for the service in the city. We're simply asking for help for the county residents,” Tice said, adding in Stratford it's Wadley's EMS that's used for ambulance services.

The problem for most of the EMS services now in Garvin County is funding available really only covers in-town calls, while many other emergencies are coming outside of a city limits in the rural areas.

He said many times those calls outside of town become a “free service to rural customers” who use a local ambulance service.

“We want to provide that service but the towns can't afford it,” Tice said about the rural calls.

“We all need help because these rural customers deserve to have an ambulance service.”

EMS officials say even though insurance companies or Medicare are billed many of the ambulance calls out into the rural areas of the county do not get paid in the end.

Wadley's EMS estimates it costs around $400,000 a year to operate just one fully equipped ambulance with a paramedic on board.

Officials with Lindsay EMS say the annual budget there is around $1.3 million for two paramedic staffed ambulances 24 hours a day.

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