By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Liberty County is considering the possibility of managing its own ambulance service, though it likely will be a few weeks before a decision is made. On Thursday, county commissioners held a workshop to hear a presentation from current and former staff members of now-defunct Liberty County EMS about the costs of the County taking over the service, which until recently served all of the unincorporated parts of the county.
Liberty County EMS is offering the County all of its ambulances and equipment for approximately $500,000, which would be used to pay all of the organization’s remaining debts. As Liberty County EMS operated as a non-profit, the rules require that assets be transferred to another non-profit service or business, or a government entity. Liberty County is being given the first option.
To help navigate them through this process, commissioners created a committee, headed by Klint Bush, with Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur, Pct. 1 Commissioner Bruce Karbowski and Fire Marshal Bill Hergemueller serving as members. It was previously reported that Liberty County EMS Director Mike Koen served on this committee, but Koen said that is a misunderstanding. Recently, the committee did a walkthrough of Liberty County EMS’s operations in order to report their findings at the meeting Thursday.
“As you will see here, I have listed all of the assets we have and the current value. Where it says new value, that’s what you would have to pay for brand new items,” said Koen. “I have two of my board members here – Dana Pittman and Don Neyland. We had a meeting after that group did a walkthrough. We talked about whether we could throw the building in, too, and we were in agreement to do that. The amount we sell for must go toward debt. It can’t go in our back pockets.”
Koen said the board was very passionate about Liberty County EMS becoming a county entity.
“The fact is when we changed the name when I took over 24 years ago, we thought then we would be able to do that. We decided not to do it at the time because we were doing well financially,” Koen told commissioners. In recent years, the Affordable Care Act set limits on what would be paid for an ambulance call. More recently, Liberty County EMS was dealt a second blow during the COVID-19 pandemic because of fewer calls for service.
The plan that was prepared for commissioners was presented three options to commissioners with annual operating costs ranging from $1.2 to $2.4 million. Option 1, the most expensive at $2.4 million, would include six advanced life support ambulances staged at strategic points throughout the county. Option 2, at $1.6 million, is for four advanced life support ambulances, and Option 3, at $1.2 million, would include three advanced life support ambulances. All three would include a highly-trained captain, following in a chaser vehicle, to assist in medical emergencies.
Ron Nichols, EMS director for Chambers County, was asked to sit in on the discussion and offer his take on the proposals. Chambers County, which is about half the population of Liberty County, took over operations of its ambulance service in 2019. Prior to that time, the unincorporated sections of Chambers County were served by three non-profit ambulance services.
Commissioners learned that the cost of operating Chambers County EMS is about $2.7 million annually. One advantage to the county operating its own service is grant money, Nichols said.
“The State will reimburse you for some of the uncompensated care costs for non-insured. If we get back what we are anticipating, it will be another $470,000 from the State,” Nichols said. “You open yourselves up to additional state and federal grants that are not available to EMS services.”
After the meeting, Liberty County Judge Jay Knight said he is still weighing the options. He first wants to review the bids that were submitted to the county through a recent Request for Proposals.
“I have gotten so many different numbers regarding Liberty County EMS. One thing we must do first is find out how much it is going to cost down to the penny,” Knight said.
Knight said three things are “staring him in the face” as this decision lingers. First, the County just took over the jail. While he and commissioners have a good idea of how much it will cost to operate the jail, there are situations that could arise. Secondly, Liberty County is growing at a rapid pace, which is causing a strain on manpower at the sheriff’s office. Additional manpower and equipment will be needed in order to adequately serve county residents, he said. Thirdly, a new federal administration is now in place, which has created some uncertainty in the economy, Knight said.
“I do not know where the economy is going to go. Why would we want to step off in a dark hole without knowing what the economy is going to do?” he said.
At the end of the meeting, commissioners asked the committee to continue working on a more detailed budget should the County take over Liberty County EMS.
“We have the RFPs from the other companies but we still have to evaluate them. We won’t put a decision on the agenda for next Tuesday. It will be the first meeting in February at the earliest before we make a move in any direction. That gives us time for those young men to get us good numbers that we believe are accurate,” Knight said.
Currently, Liberty County has a month-to-month contract for $70,000 per month with Allegiance Mobile Health for ambulance service in the unincorporated areas of the County. Cleveland, Dayton and Liberty have their own ambulance services in place.