ELIZABETHTON — The ongoing dispute between some members of the Carter County Commission and the Carter County Rescue Squad continued Monday.
After a lengthy discussion, the Commission voted 18-3 for a contract that will grant the squad a one-year deal that gives the squad the exclusive rights to operate an ambulance service in the county.
Commissioners Nancy Brown, Ken Arney and John Lewis voted against offering the contract, which must now be considered by the squad’s board of directors.
While the contract won the commission’s consensus, it was not what the squad wanted. Richard Norris, the squad’s attorney, said the organization requested four years on the contract. Norris said the longer term was needed to refinance debts and to assure employees the squad would have a long-term presence in the community. Lewis agreed, saying as a businessman he understood banks were more willing to approve loans when the borrower had more security.
Norris attempted to win the support for four years by telling commissioners the restructuring plan included the weaning of the squad away from all county funding. In the past, the county had provided the squad more than $300,000 a year to fund rescue services in the county’s highways, mountains and lakes. The commission had reduced the county’s contribution to $200,000 two years ago and to $100,000 this fiscal year.
Norris told the commissioners those cuts in funding and the added costs of dispatch services that the Carter County 911 Communications District levied on the squad this year were the reasons he was appearing before the commission. He said the squad’s board of directors has resolved to make the squad self-sufficient, with ambulance and rescue services being paid by the users of the service and not by Carter County taxpayers.
While some commissioners were sympathetic to Norris’ request, others objected to the squad’s business practices, including high prices for ambulance trips and filing lawsuits for not paying for services when billed.
“You can hire the highest-price limousine to go to the hospital cheaper than an ambulance,” Arney said. Because of the squad’s practice of filing lawsuit for nonpayment of bills, Commissioner Steve Chambers said “there are people afraid to call the Rescue Squad.” He said if an exclusive contract were granted “I would like to have assurance from the Rescue Squad to not sue people who use it and can’t afford to pay their bill.”
Norris said any business has to rely on lawsuits in order for collections to be effective. He said the squad’s rate structure is in compliance with the amounts set by Medicare. He said patients in poverty can fill out a financial form, like the one used by the County Health Department, which will be reviewed by the squad’s directors. “There are a number of patients who don’t have to pay us a dime,” Norris said. The key was to fill out the form. Those who have been sued have not taken that step, Norris said.
The first motion on the matter was made by Arney. His motion was to exclude the word “exclusive” from the contract.
Commission Chairman Thomas “Yogi” Bowers said that would mean the resolution would just grant the squad the right to operate an ambulance service in Carter County. That meant there could be other ambulance services operating in the county, as there have been in the past. The motion only received six votes.
Lewis then made a motion for a 4-year exclusive contract. That motion was tabled.
The motion for a one-year contract was then approved by a 18-3 vote. The motion included a provision removing language that would allow the Rescue Squad to charge the county for prisoner transports.
The commissioners also approved several other resolutions on stormwater and water-quality management.
Two minor rezonings were also approved, one on the Stoney Creek Highway for a parcel to be zoned for a business. It was owned by Redi Mart. The second rezone was for low-density residential. It is for a proposed housing development on Big Springs Road. Eastern 8 is the developer for the project.
Several commissioners expressed concerns about the ability of the road to handle approximately 36 new homes. “We are creating a hazard,” Commissioner Jo Ann Blankenship said. Road Superintendent Jack Perkins said he would look at the development closely before granting his approval.
Commissioner Scott Sams said he was pleased with the plans. “I think it is great we are having development. It helps our schools and helps our tax base. I think it is wonderful.”
The commissioners also approved an incentive program that would reward school custodians and kitchen staff for helping grow the county’s recycling efforts. Mayor Leon Humphrey suggested the idea was premature, but the commission gave its consent with only Sams voting in opposition.