With an eye toward restarting negotiations, Iola City Council members voted Monday to terminate the city’s emergency medical services contract with Allen County.
Board members Steve French, Donald Becker and Beverly Franklin voted in favor of giving the county a six-month notice the city will terminate the contract. Councilmen Gene Myrick and Sandy Zornes were opposed. (Council members Nancy Ford, Bob Shaughnessy and Jon Wells were absent.)
Since January — and at the end of an extended, grueling negotiating process — Iola has provided countywide EMS service, although it became evident early on that projected revenues would leave the city with a deficit at year’s end. Since then, the city has forecast a $377,000 shortfall.
The city appealed to the county to cover half the projected deficit — $189,000.
The county eventually approved the request earlier this month, with the provision Iola repay the monies if the city were to break its contract and hand over ambulance service to the county.
City council also approved implementing a $5 surcharge on all electric customers to help make up the deficit.
In voting to institute the surcharge and give notice, the Council effectively rejected the county’s overture.
“To continue as is, Iola would have to do something radical (with its budget) to make the contract work the next 4 1/2 years,” French said. “We need to renegotiate. I don’t see how or where we can make it work with the agreement we have.
“Can it work? Yes,” he continued. “Can it work keeping Type I service 24/7 in Moran, Humboldt and Iola? Funding does not allow us to do this type of a service. We need more funding.”
Type I service requires a paramedic be aboard an ambulance. Moran and Humboldt have only Type I ambulance service. Iola has three ambulances, of which one has Type I capability.
Council members remained steadfast that Iola alone should not be responsible for keeping the countywide service financially afloat.
Options under consideration included a 6-mill increase in local property tax levies, a $5 surcharge on monthly electric bills for city customers, increasing the local sales tax rate or increasing transfers from the city’s utility reserves.
Ultimately, council members voted for the $5 electric bill surcharge through Dec. 31. Transfers from utility reserves will make up the rest.
A decision on EMS was necessary by Monday because of the deadline for setting the city’s 2015 budget.
Ending the contract carries obvious risk. If negotiations fall through and a new pact cannot be reached, “then we’re done,” French noted.
The current agreement “is not favorable to the city of Iola,” Becker said. “We’re operating an excellent service. When you add the numbers, it’s easy to see we are saving the county about $300,000 a year. Everyone understands this.”
Becker noted the county brought in about $361,000 in ambulance funds through property taxes this year, even though the county does not operate a service. It’s only fair, he opined, that the county allow the city to use those funds.
“I can’t agree to decimate our utility funds to support the county, to subsidize the county,” Becker concluded. “I don’t think it’s right or fair.”
Myrick, meanwhile, said he vowed to his constituents to not vote for any type of tax or utility bill increase for EMS operations.
IN VOTING to end the contract, council members rejected Mayor Joel Wicoff’s plea to look at the EMS pact with a broader view.
“I understand we have a financial hurdle to overcome,” Wicoff said. “What we have in our hands is worth more than money. We’ve overcome difficult negotiations for a service that’s more efficient than two services. I trust the guys and gals who work in the service, and that’s worth more than money.”
Several Iola employees run the risk of losing their jobs through ending the contract, Wicoff said.
“Let’s be selfish,” Wicoff continued. “With the situation we’re in, we control our own destiny. If we give up this service, we don’t control the destiny of our employees. We’re gonna have to try to figure out how to fund our fire department without EMS.”
The city could potentially be on the hook for more funding if the county resumes control of the ambulance service, Wicoff contended. “There’s gonna be a startup fee. A lot of those charges will be our responsibility for dumping this. Let’s be honest. It’d be our fault because we didn’t give it a long-term willingness to see how we can do it.
“We’d all look like idiots,” Wicoff said. “I’m gonna call it as it is. This has been a six-month trial. I’ve run a business for nine years. If I’d expected to run it for six months and then just give it up, it would have been one of the stupidest investments with my money I could have made.
“The money isn’t quite figured out,” the mayor conceded, “but we had to sign a contract. We had to start somewhere. But when you sign a contract, you don’t get everything you want. You don’t get everything you want at Christmas.
“I wish you’d think of this as a two-year project, or something of that nature,” he said.
French was unconvinced, particularly after Assistant City Administrator Corey Schinstock pointed out keeping the existing contract could potentially cost millions in utility transfers.
“That money won’t last forever,” Schinstock said.
“Are Moran and Humboldt willing to add $5 for their utility customers?” French asked. “If we don’t give a six-month notice, we’re going to be doing the same thing next year. I would love nothing more than to have it all figured out by Jan. 1. But we don’t have the money like we used to. We have to become more efficient. How can the people of Iola not expect that?”
City Administrator Carl Slaugh announced a joint meeting between the Council and the Allen County Commission at 6 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Creitz Recital Hall at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.
WITH THE EMS vote, councilmen approved Iola’s 2015 budget, funded through a property tax levy of about 48.866 mills, or 2 mills above what was levied this year.
The higher levy was necessary to make up for lost funding because the city’s assessed valuation dropped about $1.5 million.
“There’s no additional spending,” Slaugh said.
The higher mill levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 house an additional $25 in property taxes to fund city operations in 2015, to $469. That figure does not include taxes to support Allen County, USD 257 or Allen Community College.
Slaugh had proposed the city institute a higher tax levy — about 6 mills — to supplement EMS funding.