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Unicoi County officials consider starting new ambulance service

Unicoi County and Town of Erwin officials once again sat down to discuss the county’s ambulance service options during the March 21 Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

After plans for the Town of Erwin to create a countywide ambulance service came to a halt earlier this month when the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen rejected a plan to create an interlocal agreement, Unicoi County officials must now decide how to address the inadequate service they have been receiving with their contract through MedicOne.

During the Wednesday, March 21, Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting the general consensus was that the county’s best option would be to create its own ambulance service rather than putting the service back out for bid.

The major obstacle for officials with the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County is trying to find a way for the county to utilize the $440,000 Community Development Block Grant that was allocated to the Town of Erwin to purchase ambulances.

After speaking with the First Tennessee Development District, the agency that administers the grant, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said there may be a way for the Town of Erwin to purchase the ambulances, then move them over to the county.

“I think it’s a good possibility that the county could move forward with the grant, or with the actual ambulances, and somehow get them into a county run ambulance service,” Lynch said.

The county can also still utilize the $250,000 for the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Alliance, and Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley mentioned an additional $115,000 the Hospital Foundation offered that could be paid back over time.

Lynch has been reviewing the business plan drafted by the Town of Erwin for the creation of a new ambulance service, and Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice has been conducting extensive research on the ambulance services of similar sized counties.

“I think it’s a good possibility we can break away from corporate providers for ambulance services,” Lynch said.

Ambulance Committee Chairman Jason Harris asked about a time frame for the grant, and Lynch said that it was still uncertain, but they should have a more definitive answer in the coming weeks.

“I believe that if you all create the ambulance service, we could let you use the ambulances,” said Mayor Hensley. “I don’t foresee a problem as long as you all will pay the matching fees.”

The scope of the grant states 75 percent of the ambulance’s usage must be within the Town of Erwin. However, Unicoi County Commission Gene Wilson stated that he believed close to 80 percent of all ambulance calls actually originate from within the Town of Erwin.

Hensley also stated she had inquired about the possibility of purchasing used ambulances to try and get the most out of the grant funds. She was told that as long as it was justifiable, such as ambulances with low mileage and in good condition, that it was a possibility.

“What we ought to do is apply (for the grant) in the next go round so we can get another new ambulance and upgrade or whatever if we have a used one or two,” said Rice.

Rice said ideally she would like to see the service start with two new ambulances and two used ambulances.

“This was pretty unique, the Town of Erwin getting this Community Development Block Grant,” said Lynch. “The high scoring ones have usually been for infrastructure.”

“It’s a big leg up,” Rice said about the grant.

Bill Hensley, chairman of the Unicoi County 911 Board, said that the best cooperation he has seen between any of the governments happened between the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County in attempts to create a countywide ambulance service before the plans hit a roadblock in the Town of Erwin BMA meeting.

“Everyone was on board,” Bill Hensley said. “The silent people that stopped this are still out there … you’ll have to fight them.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland said he felt the county ought to look into purchasing a piece of property and building a structure to house the ambulances.

Rice was concerned with focusing on purchasing property at the offset when they currently had locations to house them.

“I think if we were able to get a good director to run this thing, we could make it work,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson.

Mayor Hensley stated the reasoning for the high wages in her business plan was to attract quality workers. In her plan, paramedics would average $18 an hour, full time AEMTS would average $16 an hour, and part time AEMTS would average $13 an hour.

Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley mentioned that Johnson City pays $17.75 an hour for EMS workers, and noted that two MedicOne employees recently left Unicoi County to work there.

Wilson asked about contracting employees out to save funds, and Bill Hensley responded that it could cause issues with being able to reprimand or fire an employee who was not fulfilling their duties.

In discussing how to finance the service, Garland also stated that if funds weren’t available, the county could borrow funds for the service.

“If we’re in the black it could be its own entity … later down the road if the county had to subsidize some we could,” said Rice

Rice said that back in the 1990s Unicoi County subsidized $380,000 for ambulance services. She emphasized that she did not want to let the opportunity pass to create a new service.

“What do we have to show for the $1 million and something we’ve paid over the last years,” she asked, referencing their past with contracted ambulance services.

Lynch also reminded the committee of the past troubles the county has had with contracting ambulance services, and even mentioned an instance when one contracted company completely pulled out of their agreement, leaving the county temporarily without service.

“The history I’ve had with contracted agencies since I’ve been here has been rough,” said Lynch. “Someone said, ‘you know we don’t contract out our policeman or firefighters … why would we contract emergency medical services’.”

The committee will continue looking into the Community Development Block Grant and meeting again before next month’s Unicoi County Commission meeting.