Lewis County Medic One and Cowlitz-Lewis Fire District 20 have found themselves at a standstill over an agreement for District 20 to pay a roughly $10,000 fee to Medic One, with both parties disputing whether or not the conditions for the fee have been met.
It had been agreed in June of last year that all member districts of Medic One, including District 20 (in Vader and Ryderwood), Lewis County Fire District 2 (in Toledo), and Lewis County Fire District 15 (in Winlock), would pay fees to Medic One to help sustain the program based on the percentage of services rendered within each district.
These fees had been requested by Medic One on the basis their agency (which provides ambulance transportation services to member districts as well as Napavine, Salkum and Onalaska) was expecting a shortfall of around $45,000 at the end of 2013 due to increases in costs to operate the system.
District 20 had approved the transfer of their portion of the fee with the condition that Medic One Operations Chief Grant Wiltbank meet with their Board of Commissioners to address concerns about the financial management of Medic One and, though Wiltbank has had such a meeting with District 20, they say their desire to see financial specifics has yet to be satisfied.
"The board just wants to know what their money is going to," said District 20 Chief Rich Underdhal, observing conditions affecting Medic One's finances have continued to change since last year.
Underdhal said, among recent concerns, Medic One has decided to eliminate a ninth paramedic position from their agency, after much time was spent last year arguing its importance in maintaining an effective, responsive level of ambulance service.
Though Wildbank had stated multiple times last year that eliminating the ninth position would be a slight to area residents who need adequate EMS coverage, he stated after the Medic One Interlocal Board's regular meeting Aug. 19, given a number of conditions that have changed in recent months, Medic One has decided to eliminate the ninth position, leaving two four-person teams to staff the agency's two ambulance stations (one on SR 505 near S. Military Rd., and the other on Jackson Hwy just north of Mary's Corner.)
"It should not have an impact on our operations," he said of the decision, stating factors such as the loss of a contract for primary transport of patients to Morton General Hospital, as well as input from Medic One's bargaining unit, led to eliminating the position, which had been vacant since June.
Wiltbank added, at this time, Medic One does not have intentions, nor has been asked, to return a contribution from Districts 15 and 2 of $50,000 each for the purpose of maintaining the ninth paramedic position, which both districts committed last November to pay annually through 2016 on top of their one-time payment last year to sustain the system in general (District 15 was asked to pay $20,302 while District 2 was asked to pay $14,830).
Underdhal said, with the loss of the ninth paramedic and other such changes impacting Medic One's budget, his district would like Wiltbank to clarify why there remains a need for the fee to be paid and what exactly District 20's payment would fund.
"They've just asked for him to come over," said Underdhal, who noted meeting with Wiltbank has been difficult as the commissioners for District 2, where Wildbank is also chief, meets regularly at the same time as District 20's commissioners. "They 've never said they're not going to pay it, they just want to be able to get all their questions answered."
In the mean time, District 20's continued participation in Medic One was called into question given their current financial outlook and an uncertain ability to continue providing EMS transportation into the future.
It had been stated during the interlocal board's July 15 meeting that, with only one EMT on staff and no immediate indication of additional volunteers becoming involved, it may be most appropriate of District 20 to ask its voters for a property tax increase, so they could afford hiring a larger staff.
Such discussions continued Aug. 19, with District 15 Commissioner Randy Pennington stating, if District 20 were to be "realistic" about their future, an increase in revenue may be their only option to continue providing services.
"If something were to happen to [EMT] Ruth [Crear], we've got all our eggs in one basket," he said, adding, without an ability to contribute EMS services to other member districts, District 20 would no longer qualify to be part of Medic One. "That's something we have to look at collectively, as a three-body agency."
It was suggested District 20 should ask voters to increase their EMS levy, which would fund exclusively EMS staff and equipment, or their levy lid lift, which would fund district operations in general. Underdhal said District 20 is currently looking at the possibility of such tax proposals as well as when it would be appropriate to place them on the ballot.
"We're looking at an overall plan for how we're going to cover EMS," he said, adding options in addition to hiring more staff would be to pay for medical transportation services rendered by District 15, who have been providing a majority of EMS transportation within District 20 as of late; or to have District 20 staff members work for a number of days out of the week at District 15 as a form of in-kind compensation to satisfy their mutual aid agreement.
Commissioners from District 15, who were at the meeting, said they would be willing to support District 20 in any efforts to seek a levy increase, as District 15 is currently proposing an increase to their own EMS levy and would be willing to share their collective experiences.
"We would be glad to support them," said District 15 Commissioner Grant Kistler.
As of press time, an additional meeting between District 20 and Wiltbank had yet to be scheduled, while District 20 also remains within Medic One, until such time as they chose, or are asked, to leave.