Last Monday I would have sworn I was in a black and white live episode of the Twilight Zone watching the Lee County Board of Supervisors.
If you haven’t been watching (or reading!) shame on you, but county officials continue to feel the squeeze of pending budget pressures, especially in the wake of the closure of the Blessing Keokuk Hospital/Emergency Room.
That quite literally created a defacto mobile ER that’s run by the Lee County EMS. Yes, there are several health clinics in Keokuk, but anything of a critical nature – stroke, heart attack, major trauma, all require immediate advanced life support.
That means a Lee County EMS crew has to transport to the closest ER which is in Fort Madison, Carthage, or Quincy, adding pressure to the county’s budget to the tune of about $1 million. That includes staffing a full-time rotation in Keokuk with additional transport capacity.
The twist in all this was at one point in the meeting you had two Republican county officials advocating for a property tax increase, and two Democrats being full-throated about conservative spending.
I put my notebook down and just started listening. I was recording, but I didn’t want to miss any of this.
To be totally transparent, neither Garry Seyb, Jr. nor Tom Schulz, two of the three Republicans on the board, are of the mindset that raising taxes is a good thing - far from it. They’ve made that known regularly at meetings. But it was what it was, and it was odd to observe.
Here were Matt Pflug and Ron Fedler, both Democrats, saying the county needs to rein in spending, up to and including a wage freeze, while Seyb and Schulz said the county is in its current "mess" because we’ve always had the mentality of not moving the county's levy.
Budget Director Cindy Renstrom has said repeatedly the county should have bumped the levy up when the county took over the ambulance service in 2021. But revenue projections and assessment increases had the board believing the county could absorb the new department.
What they didn’t, or couldn’t, see was the closure of the Keokuk Hospital. That created a whole new dynamic. Funds from the hospital's foundation were transferred to the Keokuk Community Foundation and not to the county’s ambulance operations.
Seeing these political philosophies flip is kind of a breath of fresh air as both sides advocate for what is best for the county moving forward.
One of the best things moving forward would be the passage of the EMS levy on March 7. This would allow the county to tax up to .75/$1,000 of assessed valuation on property tax in the county. An advisory committee required by code will recommend what that levy would be set at if 60% of the voters approve the measure. But county officials have said even at 75 cents it won’t offset all the department's deficit spending.
But it would go a long way to helping curb the county’s deficit spending as a whole, and it needs to pass. This is the ambulance service that you hope you never need, but always want there. It should be a state-mandated essential service, but in their infinite wisdom, the state created an opening for local governments to do it, but aren't aiming any funding to support it.
A company called Insight out of Michigan is looking at reopening the hospital and ER in Keokuk,. which could help reduce some of the demand on the EMS, but just slightly. 9-1-1 calls always get an ambulance response and Lee County EMS has to currently turn down many of the transfer requests from Fort Madison due to capacity issues. If that’s your loved one, that shouldn’t sit well.
We have to fund our ambulance services, not just for our own families, but for our neighbors and their neighbors and their neighbors' families. The health care industry is taut regarding payments, reimbursements, and costs. It’s up to us to take care of our own health, but it’s also unfortunately and quickly becoming up to us to take care of others as well.
If nothing shows you the dramatic impact this service is having on the county budget, the shift of supervisors' politics to get it done, albeit temporary, should tell you the seriousness of what’s happening in the county. And they’ll be the first to say their politics at this point are.... Beside the Point.
Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at Charles.email@example.com.
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