By Leslee Kulba- “We keep on walking in a circle here,” said Commissioner Robert Pressley. His peers were hemming and hawing over whether a franchise agreement should be granted to MEDIC pending a satisfactory inspection of the private-sector ambulance service’s premises and equipment.
As Pressley and Commissioner Mike Fryar explained it, MEDIC is already providing backup service for county ambulances, but until they get permission to use 911 on the radios they already have on their vehicles, their response times are protracted by having to work through a middleman. Kermit Tolley, owner of MEDIC, has been trying to get the franchise agreement for 12 years.
At best, this Groundhog Day style of governance is an evil plot to put newspapers out of business for printing the same story twice a month. There’s an elephant in the room, but his name keeps changing. This week, Dan Friday read the latest list during public comment. First, he feared proliferation of county franchises and contracts being awarded to anybody who walks into town.
The Tolleys debunked that at the last meeting, saying they have worked in Buncombe County for 31 years, alongside county EMS. Tolley added this time that the county’s franchise ordinance has been on the books for years without exploitation.
Next was the issue of revenue loss. Patients or their insurers are billed about $850 per ambulance trip, and MEDIC assumes market share. Furthermore, Friday was concerned that if the volume of transports Buncombe County fire personnel handle goes down, the county would receive less federal funding. Extending the logic, should the county get rid of good housing stock to qualify for more HUD funding? Or eliminate living-wage jobs so more families can get TANF? Going back to Bastiat’s broken windows fallacy, maybe if Buncombe County residents took care of themselves, the federal government could spend more on more important things, or at the very least keep its promises for unfunded mandates or reduce its debt.
Friday also referenced the Bost report, which said the county did not need MEDIC. The report said response times in the county were fine, prior to Interim County Manager George Wood discovering fire department staffing was dangerously low. It also made no mention of how high response times would be were MEDIC to stop taking backup calls. Pressley asked what if MEDIC were to weary of the song and dance, “and they quit taking these 107 calls average a month? How are we going to staff enough fire and EMS to take care of this? We’re using them! We’re using them!”
Friday said the franchise agreement would allow Tolley to reject calls, adding delays to response times. Tolley said every first responder had a duty to respond. It was illegal not to respond. MEDIC has always responded and always will.
Friday said MEDIC broke the law in not having a paramedic on every truck, and got around the problem by meeting paramedics at the hospital and asking people to pose as paramedics. Tolley said he upheld requirements that every ambulance have an emergency medical responder and technician on dispatches.
Friday said MEDIC was slack on its VA contract and thus burdening the Riceville Fire Department.
He also said somebody had complained about MEDIC’s response to Hurricane Florence. Those claims, too, were refuted. The three representatives from MEDIC who spoke during public comment ran out of time before they could address allegations that they let a license tag expire, misrepresented the number of ambulances they operated, and had a complaint registered against them for delaying a transport to pursue paperwork.
Lastly, Friday said several fire departments did not send representation to the meeting because their boards and chiefs had been threatened with budget and funding cuts by the three commissioners supporting the franchise agreement. Pressley later called Friday back to the stand to repeat that statement, and Commissioner Joe Belcher called the question in the interest of respecting the decorum of the chamber.
Also during public comment, Don Yelton said if a for-profit company was charging the same rates as the county, the county was telling on itself. The money was either being syphoned off or the departments were being run inefficiently. Taxpayers, meanwhile, were eating the costs of the county’s incuriousity and resistance to market competition.
Furthermore, Yelton recalled how a month ago the commissioners were excited and gleeful to approve a $2.2 million loan, which many expected would never be paid back, for an affordable housing project that some of the commissioners and county management at the time had not had a chance to vet.
Yelton said he hoped the commissioners would give the next 501(c)(3) supplicant the 12-year due diligence treatment Tolley is getting.
Pressley, Fryar, Belcher, and Al Whitesides voted to err on the side of saving lives. So, stay tuned for the next episode.