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Commissioners trim ambulance tax increase

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At a meeting hastily called last week by Dianne Novak, county commissioners reluctantly eliminated half a mill of a proposed two-mill overall property tax increase by reducing the amount budgeted to pay for full-time ambulance attendants.

The proposed budget, published in this week’s issue, calls for an overall increase of $17.50 in property taxes on a typical residence with a market value of $100,000.

The increase will not pay for all the increased spending on the ambulance service, some of which is offset by cuts in other areas.

Also included in the budget, set for a public hearing, is about three-quarters of a mill to hire a county administrator.

Novak’s concern with the ambulance budget focused on $247,650 budgeted for overtime for the six full-time crews that staff ambulances in Marion and Hillsboro.

She said she had surveyed seven similar counties and found that few budgeted, as Marion County was, for 30 percent of each ambulance attendant’s time to pay at overtime rates, boosting annual pay for even the lowest paid EMTs to $41,000.

“We pay very good,” she said, rejecting a claim by commissioner Randy Dallke that the extra overtime money was needed to attract workers to the county.

She cited as an example Riley County, which pays almost a dollar less an hour.

“Yes, there’s overtime,” she said, “but it’s not overtime like we’ve budgeted here.”

She also said she had contacted Terry David, Rice County emergency medical services director who served as a consultant to Marion County in switching its ambulance service from an all-volunteer service to one featuring mainly paid full-time attendants.

“Terry David says we’re totally overstaffed,” Novak said.

Dallke and fellow commissioner Kent Becker, along with county clerk Tina Spencer, all suggested that the county’s relatively new emergency services director, Ed Debesis, be brought into the discussion, but Novak said Debesis already had made his case and that department heads typically were not invited to final budget discussions by the commission.

Both Becker and Dallke suggested that whether the money was for overtime or some other thing, it still would be wise to have it in the budget.

Dallke’s clearly stated intent was to add a third full-time ambulance station in his district in addition to the current stations in Becker’s and Novak’s districts.

“My area needs full-time people just like your area does,” he said.

Novak, who like Becker lives nearer to Tampa than to Marion or Hillsboro, where the ambulance stations are located, was initially confused by this, thinking Dallke was referring to the all-volunteer station in Tampa. The county also operates volunteer stations in Peabody and Florence.

“Are we going to get another house down there (in Peabody) and set up full-time people?” she asked.

Dallke replied: “There’s a problem over the horizon. All along I’ve said that I’ve got a service in Peabody that’s got a problem.”

He said he feared Peabody was running short of volunteers as Marion and Hillsboro had, and contended the ambulance in Peabody “runs just as many hours as the other ambulances.”

While this might have been true in volunteer days, when Peabody had the majority of the advanced attendants needed for hospital-to-hospital transfers, it not long appears to be the case.

This newspaper’s independent analysis of ambulance dispatches in May, June, and July indicates, as shown on the accompanying graphic, that the vast majority of locations from which patients are transported by any ambulance are Marion and Hillsboro, where the two full-time stations are located.

Debate over having money in the budget that might be used, instead of for overtime, to pay for a full-time station in Peabody got testy at times.

“It’s sad that any Marion County commissioner doesn’t study the whole picture and make sure that there’s something for the entire county,” Dallke said.

Novak countered: “We never sat here and discussed putting full-time employees in Peabody.”

The ambulance budget, once approved, could be used for either purpose — overtime for full-timers in Marion and Hillsboro or additional full-timers for Peabody.

After learning of the meeting, Debesis contacted the newspaper and asked to review a recording a reporter had made of the meeting. For legal reasons, that request was denied.

Debesis, who said he also had been in contact with consultant David, said Novak had not wanted him at the meeting because he could “debunk everything she said.”

Last modified Aug. 9, 2017

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