Quorum Court: JPs approve 1st reading of ambulance proposal

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Carroll County Quorum Court took the first step Monday night toward the creation of an ambulance service district in the eastern half of the county.

By a vote of 9-1, justices of the peace approved on first reading an ordinance sponsored by District 7 JP John Reeve that would create the ambulance district and establish a tax of 2.5 mills to fund its operation. If the ordinance is approved on second and third readings, it would then require the approval of voters in the proposed ambulance district.

Reeve has said his goal is to have the ordinance approved in time to appear on the general election ballot in November. To achieve that, the wording of the ballot issue would need to be finalized and presented to the county election commission by early September. Reeve said he plans to ask his fellow JPs to declare an emergency and allow both the second and third readings of the proposal at the quorum court's August meeting.

Ozark EMS currently is the sole provider of ambulance service east of the Kings River. Calls had been dispatched to Ozark EMS on an alternating basis with ambulances from Mercy Hospital in Berryville beginning in January 2015 but Mercy stopped accepting emergency calls in March 2016.

The 2.5-mill tax included in Reeve's proposal is based on a recommendation from a citizens advisory board that was appointed by JPs to review ambulance service in eastern Carroll County. The advisory board solicited input from potential ambulance service providers -- Ozark EMS, Mercy Berryville and North Arkansas Regional Medical Center in Harrison -- and determined that if the county were to solicit bids for the service a subsidy of $500,000 would be needed. The committee recommended an additional $50,000 to provide equipment for first responders in the proposed ambulance district.

District 10 JP Larry Swofford indicated that he would like the people in the proposed ambulance district to have an opportunity to vote on the issue, but he also questioned the ramifications if the proposal fails.

"I want the people to know whether they've still got ambulance service if this doesn't pass," Swofford said.

Ultimately, Swofford posed his question directly to Leon Cheatham, co-owner of Ozark EMS. Cheatham, who was in the audience, said his company would continue to provide service even if the proposed ambulance district is not approved by voters.

District 3 JP Lamont Richie pointed out that there is no written agreement between the county and any ambulance service provider. Given that, Richie said residents in the eastern half of the county are not assured of continued service.

"It's something the residents of eastern Carroll County face," Richie said. "It's going to be a reality every day that there may not be anybody willing to provide ambulance service without some form of guaranteed payment."

After several minutes of discussion, JPs voted 9-1 to approve the ordinance on its first reading. District 4 JP Marty Johnson, who has been a vocal opponent of an ambulance district, cast the dissenting vote. District 11 JP John Howerton was absent.

Earlier in the meeting, Johnson said voters in his district simply will not support a tax increase.

"The thing I'm hearing over and over and over is: Why would we subsidize a private company with tax money when the service is already being provided?" Johnson said.

In other business Monday night, JPs:

* Voted 10-0 to approve the second reading of an ordinance amending the county's personnel handbook to provide quarterly payments to Carroll County Sheriff's Office officers who obtain certain law enforcement certificates while employed the county, to a maximum of $125 per quarter;

* and voted 10-0 to appropriate $19,900 to the Central Dispatch Capital Project to fund renovations at the county detention center related to the relocation of central dispatch and 911 personnel from the Eastern District Courthouse to the detention center.

The quorum court's next regular meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 15 at the Eastern District Courthouse in Berryville.

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