Carter County Rescue Squad funding issue near resolution

John Thompson • Sep 17, 2012 at 9:44 PM

A controversy over funding for the Rescue Squad may be close to being resolved. The Carter County Commission received the welcome news during its monthly meeting on Monday.

The news on the Rescue Squad funding was just one of several bits of good news the Commission heard Monday. The other good news the commission heard included an agreement by the Watauga River Regional Water Authority to provide $230,000 for repaving on Siam Road, which was damaged when water lines were laid along the road. The Commission was also informed there will be no increase in the cost of medical insurance for county employees for 2013.

In an indication that a majority of the commissioners are satisfied with the leadership of the body, the commissioners elected Tom “Yogi” Bowers to another term as chairman and Lawrence Hodge as vice chairman. Both men were unopposed, but members did nominate fellow commissioners Joel Street, Jo Ann Blankenship and County Mayor Leon Humphrey for chairman. Each of the three declined the nomination, opening the way for Bowers to run unopposed. He did receive one “no” vote from Commissioner Scott Sams. The commission also appointed Scott Bowers to the post of county historian.

The controversy over funding for the Rescue Squad began in May, during the time when the County Commission’s Budget Committee was hearing requests for funding outside agencies that were not a part of the county government.

The Budget Committee had made cuts to the Rescue Squad in past years, but during talks last May it was decided to fund a new request from 911 for an additional $97,000 by taking the money away from the next year’s funding of the Rescue Squad. That reduced the squad’s funding from the county to $104,000 this year.

The county’s funding is used to support the Rescue Squad’s rescue mission, including finding lost hikers and hunters, recovering drowning victims, and also such services provided to the county government as transporting Carter County Jail prisoners to the emergency room and standing by for Sheriff Department operations including illegal methamphetamine laboratory cleanups, and hazardous material responses. In the past, the squad did not charge for these services because they had been funded with the annual donation.

With the reduction in funding, Rescue Squad Director Terry Arnold said it would impact the high standards of the rescue teams, especially in training and equipment. There had been talk of the squad giving up its rescue mission and concentrating on its profitable emergency medical service operation.

Chairman Bowers told commissioners he and Carter County attorney Keith Bowers Jr. held a discussion with Rescue Squad attorney Richard Norris over the funding controversy. As a result, Arnold wrote a letter to the commissioners on Monday in which he said the squad “has been taking a view toward reducing the long-term costs incurred by the county” by making the Rescue Squad more self sufficient while maintaining the squad’s high standards.

Arnold said in order to become more self sufficient it would need to be able to show its creditors and vendors that it will be in existence for longer than a year. To accomplish that, the squad is requesting a 5-year exclusive franchise with the county.

Another step in becoming more self sufficient would be for the squad to charge those people it rescued. Traditionally, the squad has not charged for rescue services because of the funding it had received from the county.

The change would also mean the squad would bill the prisoners of the Carter County Jail who receive ambulance service. It will also explore the possibility of billing individuals and property owners for the squad’s hazardous material operations.

After a lengthy discussion, the commissioners also approved a settlement with the Watauga water authority to pave a portion of Siam Road. The authority had agreed to fund the resurfacing after it received the proceeds from a bond issue. After negotiating with Carter County Highway Superintendent Jack Perkins, the water authority had agreed to pay $230,000 to fund the paving this fall of 3 miles of Siam Road from Siam Baptist Church to U.S. Highway 19E and also to repave Webb Hollow Road, where a water storage tank was built.

Some commissioners were not satisfied with the agreement. Ernest “Gebe” Ritchie said other county roads had also been damaged in Blue Springs and other areas. The motion to accept the settlement was amended to include a stipulation that the acceptance of the three miles on Siam did not relieve the water authority from making repairs on other roads that were damaged during the laying of its water lines.

The commissioners also reluctantly agreed to a 5-year contract with the state to house state prisoners. The state will pay $37 per day per state prisoner. Representative Kent Williams attended the meeting and said an effort has been made to increase the funding level this past session and another attempt will be made during the next session to increase it by $10 to $12 more.

Commissioner Ken Arney said prior to casting his vote: “I hate to be blackmailed and strong armed into a 5-year contract, but I vote aye.”

The biggest concern in going without a contract is that if any state prisoner suffered a catastrophic illness or injury in the jail, the county would be liable for all medical bills. Under the contract, the county is responsible for the first $1,000 of a medical bill and the state pays all costs over that amount.

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