BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – You wouldn’t say it passed with flying colors, but a county advisory panel voted 6-2 on Friday afternoon to recommend a Dallas-based ambulance service to county supervisors.
The committee met after an hour-long Q&A with reps from American Medical Response Friday morning, to hash out a recommendation for the Lee County Board. That board will have the final vote on whether to move forward with the service.
Supervisors Gary Folluo and Rick Larkin both voted for the move, although both indicated that it’s a difficult decision and the county is running out of time.
The county’s current contract with Lee County EMS Ambulance Inc., runs out on June 30, and officials there said they will not sign a new contract unless the county ponies up an additional $450,000 bring the county’s subsidy to $950,000 annually.
AMR is asking for $450,000 annually to provide three ambulances with a paramedic and EMT in each rig running 24/7.
Fort Madison and Keokuk Fire Departments both submitted bids asking for more than $900,000 each to cover the county. Fort Madison Fire Chief Joey Herren said those were large numbers, but the cost would very likely come down year over year, with the city having access to public funds that private services don’t.
In addition, Iowa legislators could be considering a bill when they resume session, to make ambulance services essential services which would change the whole landscape of private and public ambulance services by allowing governmental agencies to assess a tax to cover cost associated with providing the service.
Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber, who sits on the panel, was emphatic that the board begin to move.
“I’m being told that Lee County EMS is done June. 30. Somebody tell me if that’s true,” he said.
No one from the ambulance service responded to the question. Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise asked if anyone from Lee County EMS was on the call, which was held as an open meeting, and no one responded.
“On July 1, when we’re on the roads and there are car accidents and all this other stuff going on, somebody has to be running ambulance.” Weber said.
Weber said there is no bigger group with ties to the ambulance than the county’s first responders.
“I don’t know, is there’s even a decision to be made here? We don’t have 960K,” he said. “Now whether or not we like the ambulance service or the employees, and we’re a brotherhood – I get all that, but we don’t have the money budgeted to pay for a different option. If there were two or three others at this cost, I d say we’d have a choice to make.”
“I would say we don’t have a choice to make either.”
Committee member Dr. Phillip Caropreso who got on the committee advocating for Lee County Ambulance, said on Monday, he did an about face after reading AMR’s proposal. But Friday afternoon, Caropreso, spun again and said the county shouldn’t consider AMR’s proposal.
Folluo said he thought AMR answered questions the board had concerning hiring, response times, and how they could provide service at such a low subsidy compared to other proposals.
Caropreso said Folluo was “being generous.”
“I think he’s being generous. I would be insecure going forward with them. I believe they’re strongest intention is business and I think they were sketchy in what they answered,” he said.
“You folks are between the biggest rock and the hardest place. A no-win situation completely. AMR would appear to the be the solution, but I think it will end up causing more problems for our county. I have no hesitation in saying that.”
Folluo said the only place the county could come up with the money would be to dip into county reserves, a move he said he would oppose on a vote.
“With the COVID pandemic going on and dwindling tax revenues, I wouldn’t be able to vote for that.”
Lee County Budget Director Cindy Renstrom, who also was a voting member of the committee and voted for the AMR proposal, said the county is seeing less revenues and additional expenses.
“We need to make sure we can stay afloat,” she said.
AMR reps also indicated during the morning meeting that the city would possible have to extend their contract as they weren’t sure they could get contracts signed and things in place by July 1.
Folluo said the county may have to talk with Lee County EMS to see if they would be willing to extend on a month-to-month basis.
Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise said Lee County EMS told Supervisors in November that there would be another contract, but when finances forced the county to give another $36,000 to cover payroll at the end of February, the ambulance service said another contract wouldn’t be signed.
Bill Young, the director Lee County EMS asked supervisors for an additional $71,000 in January. The county paid the ambulance provider $429,000 in the current budget year, plus the $36,000 additional payment to cover payroll. Young asked for $500,000 for the 2020-21 contract.
“No matter what we do no one’s going to be ready July 1,” Fraise said.
Larkin voted in favor of going to AMR. He said ultimately he preferred to “stay local, support local and develop local”, but time was running out and the county needed to make a decision and then get together and start formulating a plan.
Folluo agreed saying AMR could be a bridge to local option.
“I do not think that bringing in AMR to fill the gap right now is going to prohibit us from working toward a local option,” Folluo said. “I don’t know if it’s the right place to be, but it’s the necessary place to be.”
No one representing the City of Fort Madison or the City of Keokuk is on the panel.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Fedler has called for a special meeting on Saturday to review the recommendation. That meeting can be accessed at 1 (571) 317-3122 with access code 751-027-701, and begins at 5 p.m.