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Chiefland claims county is "roadblocking" on ALS

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By Mark Scohier

The county has a grudge against the City of Chiefland, is what some city officials are saying about Chiefland’s pursuit of emergency services and annual funding from the county for fire protection.
At Monday night’s city commission meeting, both the issues of ALS and fire funding were discussed during a recap of a meeting last week on ALS between area medical directors, officials from the county and the City of Chiefland.
Chiefland Fire Chief James Harris, speaking of a county commission meeting last week, claimed he took a “brow beating” from commissioners on the issue of why his department needed money. Harris said he felt singled out when asked to justify his request for the annual sum paid to Chiefland by the county for fire protection. “I don’t know what Chiefland has done,” he said.
The county, ultimately, cut $3,400 off the top on an extra $12,000 paid last year in addition to the roughly $200,000 it allots to Chiefland every year. The cut was from extra funds the county paid previously for fire protection outside Chiefland city limits. Harris said he was told the reduction was due to answering less calls outside the city.
He said Monday he didn’t feel up to debating with county commissioners.
Levy County Department of Public Safety Director David Knowles said in a phone interview Tuesday that Chiefland Fire Rescue had answered 542 calls out of the city last fiscal year, compared to the 563 calls the year before. Overall, he said, there were 41 fewer calls run by Chiefland.
Williston Fire Rescue, which got more money from the county this year than Chiefland, saw an increase last year in the number of calls it ran. Knowles said Williston ran 101 more calls for the county than it did the year prior.
Mayor Teal Pomeroy, who was not at the county commission meeting last week, said he felt, after reading views expressed in an area newspaper’s coverage of the issue, that some county commissioners have “low esteem” for the City of Chiefland.
Chiefland Commissioner Rollin Hudson made a point to say he didn’t want to turn Monday’s meeting into a political discussion, given that it’s an election year.
Still, despite whether or not recent issues can be used as negative spin against candidates, the $3,400 cut is a far cry from the fears of no county money at all expressed by Harris and some city officials at the last city commission meeting and in meetings from the past. About two years ago, the idea had even prompted city officials to begin discussing the idea of a city fire assessment to fund the fire department, just in case the county cut the city off completely, which it never did.
The bigger issue Monday night, however, was what some at the meeting called the county’s “roadblocks” in Chiefland’s pursuit of ALS.
In short, Chiefland representatives on the issue have been arguing that the need for ALS far outweighs whatever cost might be accrued in its implementation.  “If it saves just one life, it’s worth it,” has been the mantra repeated by Chiefland officials at the beginning of each meeting on the issue. Non-transport ALS would enable Chiefland rescue personnel to administer potentially life-saving medications and medical procedures while patients are waiting for an ambulance, they argue.
Vice Mayor Teresa Barron, the Chiefland commissioner who represents the fire department, and City Attorney Norm Fugate, an ardent and vocal supporter of ALS in the city, both said Monday they are frustrated with how long the process with other officials on the matter is taking.
The county, in short, is saying it wants to figure out where the money is going to come from, how resources will be allocated and how to ensure strict standards are upheld, the latter being an issue area medical directors insist on, as well (see accompanying article in this week’s Citizen).
Pomeroy said he feels that the county doesn’t want the city to have ALS. “From everything I’ve seen, it’s been roadblock after roadblock after roadblock.”
Harris agreed, saying he doesn’t know what else to do.
County officials maintain they wouldn’t be bothering with meeting with Chiefland and medical directors if it was an idea they were absolutely opposed to. At last week’s ALS meeting, officials discussed how to come up with the $11,000 to begin a study to determine how to separate funds that could be used to pay for the service.
The matter was brought up Monday when city officials were asked to consider paying for half of the study, though it was decided to table a decision until more numbers could be figured from a list of requirements the county is expected to send the city later this week.
Other expenses the city could potentially have to come up with for ALS include the hiring of two more full-time paramedics (for a total of three) and associated equipment. Paramedics, according to staff, cost about $39,000 a year, a figure that includes benefits but doesn’t figure in overtime. Harris said addition0l hires would only offset the budget by about $29,000.
There was no discussion on how the money for the paramedics, though mostly covered from department funds, could potentially affect other expenses for Chiefland Fire Rescue, which, according to repeated statements made by officials, is always in need of money.
Knowles said Tuesday the county pays about $208,000 a year for three paramedics. That figure accounts for hourly pay at $13.14 an hour, overtime and benefits.
According to City of Chiefland staff Tuesday, the proposed pay for a city paramedic breaks down to an hourly figure of just under $10 an hour, which could pose problems for the city keeping paramedics on staff long term. Harris has said publicly in past meetings that CFR has a hard time retaining staff because of relatively low pay. Rescue workers tend to go to other departments where they can make more money, he said.
Monday night, Harris said he didn’t understand why the county would require three full-time paramedics, though the medical directors at last week’s meeting said full-time paramedics were important because they are better trained to deal with emergencies. He said he didn’t understand the “six-month rule,” a county standard of training also required by area medical directors.
The equipment, Harris said, is a one-time purchase and can be funded with grants, loans or even donations from the community, though, he added, he also disagrees with the strict standards on equipment that are being imposed –  such as the refusal to allow such things as refurbished heart monitors.
“I don’t understand the big deal about equipment,” he said, which, again, is another issue being insisted on by medical directors.
Fugate said, “When you get down to it, meh, it’s not the requirement,” adding that the standards were being held up as “roadblocks.”
On the matter of funding, Fugate and Barron said they feel ALS expenses should come out of the county’s EMS assessment taken from the city.
“One way to look at this is … maybe the county should be funding it,” Fugate said, adding that it’s the county’s responsibility to fund EMS services, which ALS falls under.
Pomeroy said the county’s response will be that it’s not requiring the city to create an ALS system.
Fugate said that even if the county shouldered 100 percent of the expenses, it would be a benefit, both in emergency services coverage and in cost. Allowing Chiefland to use ALS would cost “pennies on the dollar” compared to what the county would spend on beefing up coverage in the city, he said.
If nothing else, the county could try it on a trial basis and pull the plug if it turned out not to be feasible, Fugate said.
He said he didn’t understand a lot of the county’s approach to the issue, in general, but added that his recommendation was to press forward with the process.
Commissioner Betty Walker agreed, adding that the city has made progress since last year.
“We’ll not give up on it,” she said. “We’ll work to stay there.”
“Maybe they’ll work with us,” Barron said. “The medical directors did seem like they’d work with us.”