By Kendal Groner
Despite recent attempts to determine a solution to the county’s reported unsatisfactory ambulance services provided by MedicOne, the future of the county’s ambulance services still remain uncertain.
“We have been discussing this for some time,” said Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley. “We actually started discussion on this before I retired as city recorder in the late 1990s.”
During the Monday, March 12, Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, a motion failed that would have approved the Town of Erwin to create a new Ambulance Service Department, forming an interlocal agreement among the three municipalities.
After the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee met last week, they agreed to recommend to the Unicoi County Commission to provide $138,253 in funding for creation of a new ambulance service as proposed by the Town of Erwin.
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.
Originally, revenues were projected at $885,120, with the Town of Erwin matching $115,000, and the municipalities splitting the rest of the costs. Based on population, 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.
However, after collecting data on the number of ambulance calls over the last few years, Mayor Hensley projected revenues to run closer to $1,184,00, and added that the Hospital Foundation was willing to provide an additional $150,000 that could be paid back over a period of time.
“Over the past five years, it has averaged 3,700 calls a year,” Hensley said.
With 25 percent of ambulance calls being no pay calls, the other 75 percent of ambulance calls average $320 per call.
“The estimated income with the county’s contribution, with the foundation grant, we are going to come up with approximately $192,000 in excess of revenue over our anticipated expenditures,” Hensley said.
After looking at the number of ambulance calls that had to be answered by the Erwin Police Department or neighboring counties, along with the situations where family members had to transport individuals, Hensley said it was obvious that something needed to be done.
“I know we have talked about this being the county’s responsibility, but when I took an oath of office to serve as mayor, I vowed to do the best that I could for the welfare of our citizens at all times,” she said. “I think it is my responsibility to at least try to provide ambulance services to the county.”
However, Alderman Gary Edwards said he was unsatisfied with the proposed plans and felt the county should be contributing more.
“It’s not costing us anything,” Hensley replied. “Even our matching funds are paid for by the foundation.”
Alderman Gary Chandler also noted that he had spoken with several individuals that felt it was the county’s responsibility to address the inadequate ambulance services.
“A half a dozen times at least, I told them (Unicoi County) that if they didn’t do something we would,” Hensley stated.
Hensley also reminded the board that the funds for the Community Development Block Grant were only available to the Town of Erwin, and would go away if they weren’t used.
Alderman Mark Lafever questioned who would be responsible if revenues were not met, and asked if there would be a written agreement holding the other two municipalities responsible.
Hensley said there would be a written agreement drafted, however the Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch informed her he would not contribute to the service as he was already a part of the county.
Although additional money could also be saved if they found a suitable insurance clerk to handle the billing, according to Hensley.
“A call could also cost over $1,000,” she said. “It just depends on the type of call that comes in and the personnel that answers the call.”
Lafever was still concerned with raising taxes in the event the revenue stream fell short, and also mentioned that the Town of Erwin residents would be double taxed by paying both county and city taxes.
“So we will raise taxes to build tennis courts, but not an ambulance service,” Hensley asked.
Alderman Virgil Moore made a motion to approve the creation of a new Ambulance Service Department, but it failed due to lack of a second.
“I’d like to commend you for all of the work you’ve done mayor,” said Chandler. “I just think the county has dropped the ball.”
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In other business, the board discussed the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s 2018 Local Parks and Recreation Fund Grant that could be used to improve Fishery Park.
“It seems to me the top priorities are tennis courts, and then two ball fields, bathrooms, and throw in the improvements to the basketball courts,” said Glenn Rosenoff, city recorder.
The town can request up to $500,000 for a $1,000,000 project in funding from TDEC, but the town is required to match 50 percent of the allotted funds.
Due to their condition, Rosenoff recommended the courts be demolished, and estimated the cost for all of the improvements to be around $1,000,000.
“My recommendation, since it seems TDEC likes improvement plans, is to go for the maximum of the grant,” he said.
However, Mayor Hensley was concerned that matching the full $500,000 for one fiscal year could be straining on the budget, and instead suggested splitting the project into two phases.
She suggested the town apply for one $500,000 project at a time, only requiring them to match $250,000, and noted that once one phase was complete, they could reapply for additional funds when grant applications were reopened in two years.
The price for six new tennis courts alone, would be estimated around $600,000, according to Rosenoff, and the lighting and fencing for the men’s field would be around $150,000.
“I get more complaints on the tennis courts than anything else in town,” Lafever said. “It would be nice to have solid numbers for each facility we are looking at … and then we can pick out what we can afford.”
Rosenoff said he would compile numbers for the cost of each project to present to the board in the called meeting before the April deadline for the grant application.
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The board unanimously voted to approve the appointment of Tom Bradford to the Unicoi County Animal Welfare Board.
The board also unanimously approved the closing of a section of Gay Street from the corner of Main Avenue to First Tennessee Bank as part of the Unicoi County High School prom at the Bramble from Saturday, April 28, at 11 a.m. to Sunday, April 29, at 11 a.m.