By Kendal Groner

After a motion to create a new ambulance service department failed during the March 12 meeting of the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, it is now up to Unicoi County officials to find a solution to the inadequate ambulance services the county has been receiving.

“I was shocked, absolutely shocked,” Doris Hensley, Town of Erwin mayor, said about last week’s meeting. “In the work session everyone was in favor or agreement that something had to be done, even one of the aldermen said we’ve got to stop pointing fingers and solve this problem.”

Inadequate staffing, long wait times, and simply not enough personnel have become common complaints by local officials against MedicOne, the ambulance service Unicoi County currently has a contract with.

Jason Harris, Unicoi County commissioner and chairman of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee, said he would have liked to see the motion pass in the Erwin BMA meeting, which would have created an interlocal service agreement among the three municipalities.

“Once they got it up and running we could have turned it into an authority,” Harris said. “I was really hoping they could get that passed.”

Harris mentioned Washington County, Johnson City, and Jonesborough, three governments who all three work together as an ambulance authority.

“That’s what it could be turned into,” he said. “I really was hoping we could all (Unicoi County, the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi) three work together on it and get something together for the people of the county.”

Mayor Hensley said that she still receives complaints about the service on a regular basis, and is concerned with how long the issue has been drawn out without agreeing on a solution.

“I had a report that a parent had to put a child in their own car and take them to the hospital … this is a scary situation,” Hensley said.

Harris could not affirm whether or not the county will pursue legal action against MedicOne for contract violations. He said officials are currently compiling data on the number of calls where an ambulance was not available or there was a considerable wait time.

“Right now I think we’re just waiting to see the 911 board and attorney … they’ve (MedicOne) had one letter sent to them before and they know they’re in violation, but they want specific dates,” Harris said.

The creation of the ambulance service had projected costs of $1,233,807. A total of $440,000 from a Community Development Block Grant, and $250,000 from the Hospital Foundation for the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Health Alliance was available to fund the service.

After collecting data on the number of ambulance calls over the last few years, Mayor Hensley estimated that projected revenues would run close to $1,184,000. The Hospital Foundation was also willing to provide a additional $115,000 that could be paid back over a period of time. The Town of Erwin had agreed to match an additional $115,000, with the three municipalities splitting the rest of the costs.

The $440,000 Community Development Block Grant was allocated to the Town of Erwin rather than the county. However, Mayor Hensley is still working to see if there is a way the funds can benefit the county.

“I am still working on the possibility of us buying two ambulances and keeping it in our name and letting the county use it, but I don’t know if my board will even go along with that,” Hensley stated.

If the Town of Erwin had progressed with plans to create the new ambulance service department, Unicoi County would have been responsible for $138,253, the Town of Erwin would be responsible for $47,651, and the Town of Unicoi would be responsible for $27,779.

The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee had voted to recommend to the Unicoi County Commission to provide the $138,253 in funding for the service. Unicoi County currently pays a $132,000 subsidy, or $11,000 each month, for MedicOne’s services. 

During the Town of Erwin’s BMA meeting last week, those opposed to creating the ambulance services cited a potential tax increase to cover the costs as the reasoning behind their opposition. However, Mayor Hensley said after working long and hard to come up with her financial projections, she was confident in the figures she had.

“It was all covered, we would have had a surplus,” she said. “I know the first year would have been the hardest, but everything was covered for the first year.”

With the grant money available to the Town of Erwin, Hensley felt there was a greater chance of the county having to raise taxes if they were to create their own service.

“That was one thing I didn’t get, they talked about a tax increase, but a tax increase for the county would have been much larger than one for the Town of Erwin, if there had to be one,” she said.   

On Wednesday, March 21, at 3 p.m. the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee will meet in the Unicoi County Courthouse to discuss their options in addressing the ambulance issue.