Contract, taxes have WCCAD funds dwindling

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Although Western Carroll County Ambulance District Chairman Chuck Olson, through state Sen. Bryan King, was able to get state law changed in this last legislative session for ambulance districts to legally fund "ancillary services" such as Emergency Medical Responders, the win may be a two-edged sword.

WCCAD funds are dwindling since signing a new contract with the City of Eureka Springs last year to provide ambulance service. That contract takes 90 percent of the 2-mill property tax collections, leaving WCCAD with 10 percent to fund equipment, training and supplies for its EMRs.

EMRs in four rural fire departments in the Western District are toned out to medical calls in their area at the same time as the ambulance and provide triage, first aid and CPR before the ambulance can get there.

With the ambulance from Eureka Springs often taking 15 minutes or more to reach patients in the outlying areas of Holiday Island, Grassy Knob, Inspiration Point and rural Eureka Springs, EMRs can be a vital link in saving lives.

With tax collections down, and with the need looming to replace 46 Automatic External Defibrillators each EMR carries to medical calls, the financial situation is of concern to commissioners.

WCCAD Treasurer Joe McClung handed out a financial summary at the board's May 21 meeting that shows the ambulance district lost a little over $5,000 last year after contract payments, equipment, training and supplies were deducted.

The summary shows tax collections of $256,737.58 in 2010, jumping to $261,951.93 in 2011 but falling to $249,114.56 in 2012. Prior to July 2012, WCCAD paid Eureka Springs 85 percent of tax collections and kept 15 percent to fund its EMRs.

In 2012, WCCAD paid $229,207.94 to Eureka Springs and spent $11,803.31 on EMR supplies, $11,636.99 on training, $765.17 on office supplies and $852.02 on attorney fees, leaving it in the red by $5,150.87.

As of the end of April, the total WCCAD balance stood at $298,438.05, almost $210,000 of it tied up in certificates-of-deposit.

Collections for 2013 are also down, said McClung at the meeting. The figures show $35,842.40 at the end of April as opposed to $43,081.53 in 2012.

"In the first four months, our receipts are down by almost $8,000," he said. "When you look at the (property tax) delinquencies in the newspaper, it bears watching. I want the board to be aware of the cash flow."

Recent editions of Carroll County News have published several pages of tax delinquencies and announcements of properties going to the State Commissioner of Lands for nonpayment. Most of those delinquencies, numbering in the hundreds, are from Holiday Island, which has the largest bulk of higher-value properties in the county. Recent state land auctions in the Western District have brought few to no sales, especially in Holiday Island.

The ambulance service contract, in effect for another five years, was hotly debated for several months by the WCCAD board and the public. Up until last year, Eureka Springs had bid for 85 percent of tax collections but upped its new bid to 90 percent. Mercy Health Systems of Springfield, Mo., bid for $200,000 for the first year and increases in subsequent years based on the Medical Consumer Price Index, although they were willing to consider other inflationary factors.

What fueled some of the controversy was that Mercy was willing to station an ambulance in Holiday Island, which receives around 60 percent of the total WCCAD medical calls due to its mostly senior population. Eureka was not willing to do the same.

Other factors, such as no reciprocal agreements between medical helicopter services, such as Air Evac Lifeteam (which offers memberships) and Mercy Central EMS (which has no memberships) made it a tough decision for commissioners, as many residents of Holiday Island have Air Evac memberships that waive the deductible if a member has insurance or charge nothing if they don't.

In the end, the WCCAD board voted 2-1 to stay with Eureka Springs. The Holiday Island commissioner voted to go with Mercy.

At the time the contract was awarded, Holiday Island Fire Chief Jack Deaton said he had no complaints about working with Eureka Springs ambulance crews, but added, "I'm very disappointed in Eureka Springs asking for 90 percent. You're taking another third of what we get to provide for our EMRs."

Eureka Springs has long contended it subsidizes the ambulance service to WCCAD, while WCCAD contends the opposite.

While contract bids were being discussed last year, Olson handed out a sheet showing that had the contract been at 90 percent for the prior five years, it would have been in the red every year.

"So my feeling is we cannot support our EMRs on 10 percent of collections," he said.

His statement may have been prophetic now that the figures on tax collections are coming in.

With the prospect of replacing 46 AEDs at a cost that may exceed $100,000 if WCCAD does it all at once, together with another $25,000 in regular annual EMR expenses, the commission is looking at possibly shelling out more than a third of its current reserves this year. If it continues to lose $5,000 and spend $25,000 to equip and train EMRs every year, it may exhaust its reserves by 2017, at which point the new AEDs will be out of repair warranty and need to be replaced.

At that point, WCCAD will be faced with a tough choice of searching for a less expensive option for an ambulance service contract and trying to figure out how to keep its EMR equipment up-to-date.

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