Allen County Commissioners all but cut the strings to a joint ambulance service with Iola at their meeting Tuesday morning.
Commissioners said they will explore options for a new ambulance service provider rather than negotiate a contract with Iola, which had said it would terminate its contract with the county in hopes of securing a higher contribution from the county.
Commissioners assured county residents there will be ambulance services after the contract with the city ends on Aug. 1.
The ambulance service has been an ongoing issue between the city and county for more than a generation, with the latest volley on Jan. 23 when the Iola City Council voted to end the contract. Mayor Steve French cited increased costs and other provisions in the contract. The hope, French said, was for the two sides to agree to new terms including an increased payment to the city.
County commissioners delivered a written response when they met Tuesday morning. The two-page statement recapped recent history and declared the county’s intent to look at “alternative arrangements.”
Commissioner Jerry Daniels confirmed the county had already been in talks with at least two providers, including American Medical Response (AMR). In 2020, commissioners nearly signed a contract with AMR but the company backed out because of concerns it could not recruit enough of the city’s EMS staff for the countywide service.
Daniels did not name the other company.
Commissioner Bruce Symes said commissioners weren’t entirely closing the door to working with the city, but all agreed they found the city’s current position unacceptable.
They made clear their issue is with the terms of the contract as proposed by city leadership, and they are pleased with the quality of the services currently provided by Iola Fire Department staff.
“This has not been an easy decision or any easy process,” Commission Chairman David Lee said.
“It’s very sobering. All three of us take the safety and welfare of the citizens of Allen County very seriously, and we’re very anxious to have something in place that is stable and our citizens can be grateful for.”
IOLA and Allen County worked together for decades with a cooperative agreement in which the county was responsible for EMS, while ambulances in Iola were run by Iola firefighters in exchange for an annual subsidy, according to Register archives.
In 2009, county commissioners announced their intention to assume all EMS responsibilities for the county. Iola officials started a city-only ambulance service, but the two sides eventually agreed to a contract in which Iola oversaw countywide EMS services. That system has been in place since 2013.
The contract between the city and county was due for renegotiation in 2020 but was extended for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
County commissioners, citing concerns about the availability of ambulances when needed to provide transfers of patients from Allen County Regional Hospital, began talks with AMR. Again, the City Council voted to break away from the county EMS and run a city-only ambulance department, thus keeping much of the personnel AMR would have hired. AMR withdrew from talks.
The city and county then negotiated an agreement in late 2021 at a cost of $1.65 million for 2022 with 2.5% increases in each of the five years of the contract. This year, that amount was $1.69 million.
In October 2022, the City Council voted to split its fire and EMS departments because of what was deemed “critical” difficulties in recruiting qualified staff.
But that decision came with a hefty price tag, and City Council members believed the county should pick up the $300,000 or so annual shortfall.
They proposed a new contract for $1.94 million and other terms. In their statement Tuesday, commissioners said those terms would result in a decrease in services, such as providing Basic Life Support personnel rather than Advanced Life Support certified EMS providers.
Commissioners said it amounted to paying more money for reduced services.
“The County entered the 2022 agreement in good faith, with the intention of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars while benefiting the City of Iola and its residents along with all other county residents by sharing ambulance service provisions and costs,” the statement read.
“The city’s notification earlier this year makes it necessary for Allen County to once again look at alternative arrangements for its countrywide ambulance service. The County Commission is doing so, earnestly and with urgent purpose necessitated by the City of Iola’s decision, to ensure that Allen County’s residents can be confident of no interruption in service, prudent management of costs and insistence on the best service possible.”