Budget talks shine light on essential services vote

Panel recommends 75 cent levy for 10 years


LEE COUNTY - Ongoing budget meetings with county officials this week pushed the fast-forward button on declaring ambulance services in the county as "essential services".

The county has created an EMS Advisory Panel, per state statute, to evaluate the need to declare the county's ambulance an essential service by public vote, and what a potential services levy should be set at.

That panel met Wednesday afternoon at Lee County offices in Fort Madison and recommended a ballot measure that would ask voters to approve a 75 cent/$1,000 assessed valuation levy for the next 10 years.

The Lee County Board of Supervisors wil hold a short meeting Thursday at 10:30 a.m. to vote on approving the language of the essential services designation. That language will then be published in local media and a special election will be held on March 7.

The move will require a 60% supermajority, and if passed, will require the county to provide EMS services.

Currently the county is not required to provide the services. However, county officials took over ambulance operations in July of 2021 after the private service in the county was facing financial collapse.

"It should scare the daylights out of them," said Jason Dinwiddie, director of operations under Director Mark Long. "Knowing that at any time, as a board, you guys could say we don't have the money to do this, we're gonna sell everything off -  it's not our problem to figure out."

Supervisor Chairman Garry Seyb said he's looking at the election as a mandate from the taxpayers to say with one voice that ambulance services are essential in Lee County.

"I'm looking for the taxpayer out there to tell us they consider this an essential service and I gotta believe in my heart they're going to come back and say it absolutely is," Seyb said.

Lee County Supervisor Matt Pflug said either way the taxpayers are going to foot the bill because the county owns the service.

"Do we fund it out of general basic or do we show what the 75 cents per thousand looks like to the taxpayers. That could be the selling point," Pflug said.

The 75 cents is the maximum allowed under state statute for an essential services levy. That amount would generate about $1.2 million that would be dedicated to the county's ambulance service... well short of the projected budget of $4.6 million proposed Wednesday.

The rest of the funds to operate the ambulance would come from billables in the form of insurance, private pay, and medicare and medicaid reimbursements, and a Ground Emergency Medical Transport federal subsidy.

"Keep in mind that 75 cents will not cover the budget, but what it does is dedicate those funds. They cannot be used for anything else by this board or a future board during that time," he said.

"We've gotta pay for it and, if we don't have the funds to do that, the only other option we have is to cut services."

Seyb said it was important for the whole county to realize the value of declaring EMS essential services, even the bigger cities.

"If there's a big accident on Hwy. 27 and we have to pull three ambulances there isn't an ambulance in Fort Madison or Keokuk," Seyb said.

"And when people are suffering a cardiac issue or other emergency they expect an ambulance."

Director Long told the board he was also asking for a 9% increase in salaries for the department.

Dinwiddie said Lee County is now competitive with other counties in salary, but he said Lee County crews are asked to do more while they're on shift.

"Our crews, Fort Madison, Keokuk, they both ran between 1,500 and 2,000 calls apiece last year. That's unheard of. Absolutely unheard of," he said.

"The people I'm talking to working in other places didn't run 1,500 calls service-wide. Our people are looking at that and going...."

Other county departments have asked for 7% increases for staff per recommendations from the county's compensation board for elected officials.

Supervisor Tom Schulz said the optics could be bad asking for that kind of a pay raise while also asking for a 75 cent/$1,000 levy to help operate the service.

Schulz also said even if approved, the levy still leaves operations at about $800,000 to $1 million short of projected budget figures.

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