ELIZABETHTON — A few weeks ago things looked pretty good for the Carter County Rescue Squad’s budget for 2012-13. Then the bottom dropped out.
“I had the budget completed,” Carter County Rescue Squad Director Terry Arnold said. Things were looking good enough that he committed to borrowing money to purchase two rescue vehicles that cost $80,000 each. One was going to serve the Elk Mills and Butler area, the other going to west Carter County.
All of that changed when the Carter County 911 District told the Elizabethton City Council and the Carter County Commission to pay for the complete cost of dispatching services.
While it was a difficult demand for the local governments to meet, the City Council voted for a budget on first reading last month that will increase funding to 911 by $50,000. That will pay 100 percent of the dispatching services for the police department and fire department. It does not include the cost of dispatching rescue squad calls in the city.
The County Commission is still awaiting the recommendation of its Budget Committee and is not scheduled to vote on it until July. The Budget Committee appears ready to recommend funding for 911 be increased by $97,145. That is enough to pay for dispatching service for the sheriff’s department and the seven volunteer fire departments, but is far below the $307,000 the 911 board requested.
The difference between the amount 911 requested and the amounts the city and county appear willing to fund is about $137,000. That is the annual cost of dispatching services for the rescue squad.
Matt Bailey, chairman of the board for the local 911 district, said his agency has been pushed by the state 911 board to increase local funding so the district does not become financially distressed.
Last Wednesday, Bailey told his board that the city and county appear willing to pay for the dispatching costs for their own emergency providers, but are not willing to pay the costs for rescue squad dispatches. The board voted by 5-3 to require the rescue squad to pay the $137,000 by Jan. 1 and to commit to the payment by Aug. 15.
As rescue squad director, Arnold has a seat on the 911 board. He was one of the three who voted against the motion.
“I voted no because I did not think the meeting was supposed to be a voting meeting. It did not say in the public announcement that they were going to vote,” Arnold said.
Arnold said the rescue squad board of directors has not met since the 911 board made its demands, so he does not know what decisions will be made, but he said the additional costs will require major cuts in other areas.
Even more difficult, some members of the County Commission’s Budget Committee, including Thomas “Yogi” Bowers, are recommending the county’s $97,000 share of 911 increases not be passed to the taxpayers. They suggest it be taken from the annual donation the county gives the rescue squad to perform rescue services, such as rescuing lost hunters and hikers and responding to disasters.
If that recommendation were accepted by the County Commission in addition to the 911 demands, that would mean Arnold would have to cut his already finished budget by a quarter of a million dollars.
“It is going to be devastating to us,” Arnold said.
He could not say where the impact would fall since that would be a decision the Rescue Squad board of directors would have to make.
He said one obvious cut would be the plans to place rescue vehicles in Butler and west Carter County this year. It would have a major impact on other rescue services.
“When the County Commission cut us $35,000 last year and gave it to the fire departments, we had to cut back on training,” Arnold said. Some of the loss was made up by moving funds from the ambulance side of the organization to the rescue squad. Arnold said that has been done before and would probably be done in the future.
Arnold is strongly committed to keeping the squad’s rescue services at the highest level possible, but he said such a big hit would require cuts in training, cuts in services and not updating equipment as often as recommended.
Arnold is surprised by the city and county’s decisions on 911 funding. He said the rescue squad has historically provided many services to the local governments at no charge.
He said these include training emergency responders on first aid, placing ambulances at major crime scenes, including methamphetamine labs, and other contributions the squad has never billed the city or the county for.
“It is hard to deal with,” Arnold said. “We have been doing this since 1949. If they had warned us that they were going to cut our funding by this much in 2014 we could prepare for it, but to give us six months, that is really tough.”
He said he feels some county leaders seem to want to punish the squad because it has to bill for its ambulance services and has to pursue collections. He said that is required by Medicare and TennCare.
“Do they want us to die?” Arnold asked. “I don’t think we are going to, but we may have to restructure.”
Even with the collections on ambulance service, he said on an average month the squad writes off $40,000 in bad debts and another $100,000 because of Medicare and TennCare rules.
“We are not a profit organization,” Arnold said, “but this is a business. Everything has to be run like a business, just like the police department, the fire department and the sheriff’s department.”