ROGERSVILLE — The Hawkins County Commission’s Public Safety Committee voted Thursday to recommend a $30,000 contribution to Hawkins County EMS, although some committee members said the ambulance service needs to look harder at spending cuts.
EMS Director Jason Murrell told commissioners last month he might have to park one of his six 24/7 ambulances due to increased overtime, which is the result of being short-handed by five EMTs.
Committee members questioned Murrell about the EMS budget for more than an hour before voting 5-0 to recommend that the full commission approve the one-time $30,000 contribution when it meets March 26.
Murrell said he could guarantee that EMS won’t cut an ambulance if the $30,000 request is approved.
Committee members were most concerned about fringe benefit expenditures for employees, which include covering 100 percent of health insurance costs for the employee and one dependent.
Another point of concern for committee members was the EMS annual Christmas bonus which amounts to $50 per year of service per employee. There are multiple employees with more than 20 years of service and some approaching 30 years.
Committee members questioned why there hasn’t been an attempt by EMS leadership to reduce health insurance and Christmas bonus expenditures.
Murrell noted that Hawkins County EMS salaries are lower than average for surrounding counties and the region. He said they’ve been able to keep employees, however, because they offer better health insurance.
Hawkins County EMS board of directors chairman Donnie Hawkins told the committee that employees have been put on notice that they might not receive a Christmas bonus in 2018, depending on the budget situation.
Murrell said the reason he hasn’t been able to fill the five EMT vacancies is because there is a shortage of paramedics that is affecting all agencies. The EMTs who are looking for a job are turned off by Hawkins EMS’ salary, Murrell added.
Committee member John Metz said he understands the need to offer 100 percent insurance coverage, but that’s what’s hurting the EMS budget more than anything.
“It’s a supply and demand issue, and you’ve only got so many EMTs to go around,” Metz said. “Everybody is wanting them. They’ve got to offer a little something to get them. If they went to 35/65, that would improve their losses by $19,000, but how many more people are going to leave?”
Last year, Hawkins EMS requested a $90,000 contribution from the County Commission’s general fund in the 2017-18 budget.
EMS wanted its regular $30,000 contribution, plus the $30,000 that Church Hill EMS received annually before it folded and Hawkins EMS took their territory and another $30,000 to offset the state-mandated 911 dispatch fee which began this fiscal year.
Last year, the commission was dealing with a $2 million revenue deficit, and Hawkins EMS was awarded a $30,000 contribution.
The 2018-19 county budget situation isn’t expected to be much better thanks to the three month delay in getting the $40 wheel tax increase implemented. As of the end of January, the wheel tax had brought in $712,000 less than projected for the first seven months of the fiscal year.
Hawkins County EMS averages around 900 runs per month. Committee member Fred Castle suggested raising the rate by $5 per run in an attempt to increase revenue by about $4,500 per month.
Murrell noted, however, that insurance companies pay a certain amount, leaving the balance for the patient to pay. Many patients don’t have the ability to pay, and some are paying off bills at $5 or $10 per month.
As a result, the effect of raising rates would have little impact because the agency’s ability to collect is limited. Murrell said that in 2017 Hawkins EMS wrote off $1.8 million that couldn’t be collected.
Committee member Darrell Gilliam asked if Hawkins EMS was awarded $60,000 annually, as many have suggested would be fair, would Hawkins EMS come back next year asking for more money?
Murrell said he didn’t foresee asking for more funding.
Gilliam said every county department has been asked to cut its budget to the bone.
Although he voted in favor of the recommendation, Gilliam said he would like to see an effort on the part of Hawkins EMS to cut spending, particularly health insurance and bonuses.