Rescue Squad gets no more funding from commission

Published 11:22 am Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye  A large crowd gathered at the Carter County Courthouse on Tuesday morning to attend the public hearing on the County's proposed budget.

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye
A large crowd gathered at the Carter County Courthouse on Tuesday morning to attend the public hearing on the County’s proposed budget.

A standing-room-only public hearing on the proposed Carter County budget lasted just over an hour, but during that time 20 people voiced their opinions on a common concern — funding for the Carter County Rescue Squad and the pending closure of two of the emergency medical service’s rural substations.

But in the end, commissioners voted to leave the budget for the agency as is and refused to approve any additional funding.

Last week, the Rescue Squad announced that if additional funding was not received from the County Commission it would have to shut down the Hampton and Roan Mountain substation units by Aug. 15.

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The Rescue Squad said it will still provide service in those areas, but residents in the Hampton, Roan Mountain, Elk Mills and Poga communities could expect longer response times in the event of a medical emergency.

During the public hearing a wide variety of opinions were voiced, ranging from requests by citizens to give the agency more funding to calls for greater efficiency on the part of Rescue Squad administration and improved billing and collections practices. However all agreed the Rescue Squad is a vital agency to the county and its residents.

“There is nothing more important that a government can do than to safeguard the lives of its citizens,” said Pamela Baldwin, of Roan Mountain. She asked the Commission to reject the budget as presented and reconsider funding for the Rescue Squad.

However, not everyone who spoke thought the burden should be on the Commission.

“I am not against the Rescue Squad,” said Jo Buchanan of Roan Mountain. “I’m for efficiency in the running of the Rescue Squad.” Buchanan referenced the amount of uncollected debt on the agency’s books and questioned whether their billing and medical coding clerks were properly trained.

Many shared their concerns that the extra time to get from Elizabethton to Roan Mountain could make the difference between life and death on some calls.

“The buzzards may get there before the Rescue Squad does,” one man said.

In addition to the citizens, some County Commissioners, the director of the Rescue Squad, a local attorney and even the County Mayor weighed in on the funding issue.

“This ain’t happened over night. It has taken us a decade to get here,” CCRS Director Terry Arnold told those gathered for the hearing. “It’s hard to listen to people in the community down a service that has saved so many lives and will continue to do so.”

“I’m not here to cast no stones, I’m just trying to keep this thing going,” he said.

While funding is an important issue, Commissioner Danny Ward encouraged his fellow Commissioners to look beyond the bottom line.

“Lives matter. I know we have a budget, but lives matter,” Ward said. “If it was your grandmother who lived at the top of Buck Mountain would you want her to die over a little bit of money?”

Commissioner Robert Carroll told the crowd that the Commission was not closing the substations; the Rescue Squad had decided to do that. He also questioned the reasoning behind announcing the closures.

“When this first started, the Rescue Squad said ‘If you don’t give us this money we’re going to sell,’” Carroll said, adding the agency said they had already located a potential buyer. “That didn’t fly so they went to the scare tactic and said they would close down services.”

Other commissioners joined Carroll in saying the Commission was not responsible for the closure of the substations, a sentiment that was challenged by Jeff Francisco, a long-time employee of the Rescue Squad.

“We were funded at $277,000 a few years ago and we had cut after cut after cut,” Francisco said. “This County Commission is responsible for shutting down those stations if they have to close.

“As far as you all not being responsible, that is you washing your hands and that is not fair,” he added.

Some questioned if the agency needed the additional funds.

Both Carroll and County Mayor Leon Humphrey cited a study conducted by the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) which said the Rescue Squad’s request for additional funding was “unfounded.”

Local attorney Richard Norris, who represents the Rescue Squad, took issue with the accuracy of the CTAS study.

“No one from CTAS ever contacted the Rescue Squad. No one from CTAS ever set foot on EMS property. They never looked at one report generated by the Rescue Squad,” Norris said. “They never evaluated the employees or looked at the equipment. They never set foot in Roan Mountain. The only things they used for their study were provided to them by the Mayor.”

After the CTAS report was released, Norris said a CTAS supervisor admitted the report was incorrect because CTAS did not work with the Rescue Squad in obtaining the information.

Norris was the last to speak during the public hearing.

The county’s budget is approved in three parts – county departments, outside agencies (such as the Rescue Squad and volunteer fire departments) and the county tax rate.

When the funding of outside agencies came up, Commissioner Ronnie Trivett made a motion to approve the outside agency funding as presented by the budget committee. Trivette’s motion would allocate no additional funds to the Rescue Squad. The motion was seconded by Carroll.

During discussion, Ward said he would like to see the motion amended to include additional funding for the Rescue Squad but no such amendment was addressed by the Commission.

The Commission voted 14-8 to approve funding for the outside agencies as presented by the budget committee. Commissioners Willie Campbell, Buford Peters, Robert Acuff, Al Meehan, Trivett, Charles VonCannon, Ross Garland, Bobbie Gouge-Dietz, Timothy Holdren, Larry Miller, Ray Lyons, Carroll, Robert Gobble and Cody McQueen all voted in favor of approving the funds. Commissioners Nancy Brown, Mike Hill, Bradley Johnson, Isaiah Grindstaff, L.C. Tester, Danny Ward, John Lewis and Sonja Culler opposed the motion. Commissioners Randall Jenkins and Scott Simerly were absent from the meeting.