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Officials set ambulance deadline

Officials from Unicoi County, the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi met at Erwin Town Hall on Thursday, Jan. 9, to discuss the future of Unicoi County EMS. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

A date has been set for the establishment of Unicoi County EMS.

Following another series of meetings last week, Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley said that the joint effort will move forward with or without the Town of Unicoi following each municipality’s January meetings.

“Everything should be finalized one way or another on Jan. 27,” Mosley said during the joint meeting that took place on Jan. 9 and featured representatives from all three municipalities. “I’m certainly not trying to cut the Town of Unicoi out; I’d be cutting my own throat, but you’ve had 24 days and we still haven’t heard anything from you.”

Last week, Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lunch explained that he still had concerns about signing on with the startup service.

“One thing we are concerned about is response times,” Lynch said. “We are way out there at the north end of the county.”

Mosley acknowledged that in recent months response times are below the national average and questioned if the mayor has had any complaints from his citizens.

“Our response time is nine minutes; we are below the national average,” Mosley said. “Have you had any complaints since Washington County/Johnson City took over service?”

Lynch replied that he “has not” had any complaints.

Washington County/Johnson City EMS Executive Director Dan Wheeley, whose service is under contract to serve Unicoi County until June 30, was on hand at the meeting as a consultant.

“I certainly understand the concern about the distance. The goal is we want to provide the best coverage for everybody,” Wheeley said. “If the three entities could collaborate, I feel that we could separate those ambulances to provide a larger coverage area.”

According to Wheeley, the ambulances are currently on the road throughout the day in Unicoi County, but are stationed at 630 Oneega Lane in Erwin. Wheeley acknowledges that once Unicoi County EMS is established the hope is that the two ambulances will be separated throughout the county to help keep response times down.

“It just makes sense to spread the ambulances out,” Wheeley said. “I encourage you to not focus too much on where the ambulances are located now but to focus on what this service could look like going forward.”

Wheeley also explained that the Unicoi County EMS Board of Directors must be established before any concerns could be addressed.

“I think the board of directors will address ambulance placement once the EMS service gets to that point,” Wheeley said. “The interlocal agreements will establish a board that can make those decisions, but we can’t do that until we know who is going to make up the board.”

According to Wheeley, time is of the essence for Unicoi County EMS to take over when the contact with Washington County/Johnson City EMS ends.

“We are pushed time wise to move forward,” Wheeley said. “I think to have everything ready it would be a June 1 estimated start date, if we started today with the agreements.”

Lynch, who has faced recent backlash from several citizens, had other concerns and wanted to dispel any rumors of lost service in the Town of Unicoi.

“There’s a group that is saying that we are without ambulance service and 911 until we sign something. I want to clarify that because that is something that scares people,” Lynch said.

Wheeley confirmed that the Town of Unicoi currently has 911 and ambulance services.

“If someone from the Town of Unicoi dials 911 an ambulance will respond,” Wheeley said. “You 100 percent have those services.”

Lynch also expressed other concerns including what would happen if the upstart Unicoi County EMS was to fail.

Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely explained that if the service failed, it would go out for bid. Mosley agreed.

“The backup plan is, we would call Washington County to assist until we could put it out for bid,” Mosley said.

According to Wheeley, the focus should be on making the service a success.

“Our goal is that the service is long term and sustainable and to have the good service that you can,” Wheeley said. “Part of that is everyone buying in and that is important to making it strong and sustainable.”

Lynch questioned how many ambulances that Unicoi County EMS will run. According to Evely, the ambulance service will have two ambulances and a backup vehicle.

“We will have two full-time ALS (advance life support) ambulances and a back up that’s what we’ve been running since July 16 with Washington County,” Evely said.

One final concern that Lynch presented was the business plan.

“I’ve yet to see a business plan,” Lynch said.

Evely explained that the planned budget would be population driven.

“It would operate under the same budget according to population,” Evely said.

According to Mosley, the proposed budget of $218,000 would be budgeted as follows:

Unicoi County would be responsible for 64.7 percent or roughly $141,046; Erwin would be responsible for 22.3 percent or roughly $48,614; and the Town of Unicoi would be responsible for 13 percent or roughly $28,340.

Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley suggested that Erwin and Unicoi County be prepared to move on with or without the Town of Unicoi.

“We could prepare two drafts for contracts, one with the Town of Unicoi, one without,” Hensley said.

Unicoi County attorney Doug Shults said that once the dust is settled it’s best to turn everything over to the board of directors.

“Once everyone’s agreements are approved we can set up articles of bylaws, then set up the board,” Shults said. “It’s designed to back off as we go and let the board make the decisions going forward.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Stephen Hendrix acknowledged that the municipalities should back off once the board is established.

“That’s all of our hopes to establish this and leave it up to the board of directors to work everything out,” Hendrix said.

Wheeley explained what the board will look like.

“There should be two reps possibly from each entity, a medical director, hospital representative, and a citizen at large,” Wheeley said. “Bylaws should establish the length of service for each member of the board.”

Lynch was not ready to commit to joining the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County in moving forward with an interlocal agreement following the Jan. 9 meeting.

“We had our meeting last night, I can’t say until our board votes on it,” Lynch said. “That’s as far as I can go. We meet again in a couple of weeks.”

• • •

The Town of Unicoi Ambulance Committee, which is made up of Town of Unicoi attorney Lois Shults-Davis, Town of Unicoi City Recorder Debbie Kessler, Town of Unicoi Alderwoman Kathy Bullen and Alderman Jeff Linville, met on Wednesday, Jan. 8. The committee was joined by Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch and Town of Unicoi Vice Mayor Doug Hopson.

During this meeting, Shults-Davis confirmed that the Town of Unicoi has four options going forward.

“The town can sign the interlocal agreement and agree to pay the 13 percent and place two members on the board of directors,” Shults said. “The town can sign the interlocal agreement and agree to pay the 13 percent and forgo placing two members on the board. The town can sign the franchise agreement to allow the ambulance service to operate within the town, but would not have representation on the board and would not be responsible for funding. The last option would be to find another ambulance service to operate in the town.”

Shults-Davis acknowledged that the ambulance committee meeting on Jan. 8 was for informational purposes only and there wouldn’t be a vote. This didn’t stop Lynch and Bullen from disagreeing over the proposed business plan by the Unicoi County EMS Committee.

“They don’t have a business plan as such,” Lynch said. “I’m still interested in seeing a thorough business plan.”

For Bullen, the business plan was clear.

“They are asking the Town of Unicoi to be responsible for 13 percent,” Bullen said. “They have a successful plan, they’ve been at this a while they are not trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Following the Jan. 8 Town of Unicoi Ambulance Committee meeting, a citizen named Charles Day was escorted out after questioning if the town officials were going to vote on the measure. “Are you going to vote on this, or are you going to leave the town hanging,” Day said. “You can pay for a caboose, but you can’t help the citizens of Unicoi.”

Lynch called a point of order and had Day escorted out following the outburst.

“This is a committee meeting, you are not allowed to talk and we are not allowed to respond,” Lynch said.

According to Shults, the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen will vote on what course of action to take at their next meeting. That meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 5:30 p.m.

The Unicoi County Commission is scheduled to meet on Monday, Jan. 27, at 5 p.m. The Town of Erwin’s BMA meetings will be on Monday, Jan. 13, and Monday, Jan. 27, at 5:30 p.m.

For more information about the Town of Erwin BMA meeting please see page 3-A.