ELIZABETHTON — It was a good night for the Carter County Commission on Monday, with the members voting for a new health insurance contract for county employees and a new contract with the Carter County Rescue Squad. The contracts will represent a savings of more than $250,000 a year for taxpayers.
The Rescue Squad contract also calms the fears of county residents who feared there might be an interruption in emergency medical service if an agreement were not worked out.
On the negative side, the commissioners still do not have a clear picture on the budget for the next fiscal year because the Budget Committee is still working. The original schedule for the budget’s passage called for the Budget Committee to have a recommended budget in the hands of the commissioners during this meeting, so they could have time to study it before voting on it during the July meeting. That schedule was disrupted by the need to find additional revenue or make cuts so reserves will not continue to be depleted.
The new contract with the Rescue Squad comes after a series of negotiations. Commission Chairman Thomas “Yogi” Bowers and County Attorney Keith Bowers Jr. negotiated for the county and Rescue Squad Attorney Richard Norris and squad executives negotiated for the squad. They agreed on a contract that will give the squad an exclusive franchise to provide emergency medical services in the county for four years, with the county paying the squad $170,000 a year for rescue services and support to the sheriff’s department activities.
There was some criticism of the contract from private citizen Roy Livingston, some commissioners and Mayor Leon Humphrey.
Humphrey said the contract was not put out for bid, as the commissioners had once discussed. He said when the deadline approached, the contract could have been made for one year in order to provide time to bid out the contract. The mayor and some commissioners were critical of the mechanics of the negotiation, with Chairman Bowers negotiating nearly exclusively for the county.
Bowers said the negotiations happened by chance. He said he thought the squad’s offer of providing the services for $225,000 a year “was way too high.”
“I was in the courthouse in the Clerk and Master’s office one day and I happened to run into attorney Norris,” Bowers said. “Natually, we started talking about it and we stepped outside and continued to talk.” He said this was the start of negotiations that went on for two weeks.
“I had to put aside my personal feelings and negotiate for the good of the county,” Bowers said. “We finally settled on one figure.”
He said the negotiations came after the County Commission had made a one-year offer to the squad that was rejected and the recent meeting of the Health and Welfare Committee when a vote to place the contract out for bid had been defeated.
As the discussion continued, Commissioner Steve Chambers, a strong critic of the squad in the past, said “I can’t believe we are sitting here talking about this. What we need to do is look at what is in the best interest of the citizens of Carter County.”
A vote was soon taken, with the Commission voting for the contract by a 21-1 vote. Ken Arney voted against it.
The commission’s support for the new contract with Blue Cross Blue Shield for medical insurance was even stronger. The new arrangement saves the county $18,369.38 per month. The county paid $1.8 million to Blue Cross this year. It will pay only $1.6 million next year. That represents a 12 percent reduction.
Finance Director Ingrid Deloach said the new contract came as an outgrowth of the negotiations between Blue Cross Blue Shield and Mountain States Health Alliance, the health provider for most county employees. Deloach said employees were concerned their providers might not be in network if a deal could not be worked out between Blue Cross and MSHA. For that reason, the county decided to take bids for a possible alternative.
Deloach recommended the new contract and said in addition to the major savings, it also moved up the coverage years from calendar years to fiscal years, to make it easier to figure insurance costs at budget times.