County Mayor Greg Marion told commissioners that the Emergency Medical Services Department will be out of funding for personnel as of Feb. 20, and after that point he will not be legally able to write paychecks.
"Any decisions on EMS from then on must be made by the commission," he said.
This prompted questions from commissioners on what the county's financial status is otherwise, to which Marion said all the bills are up to date and most budgets are in line with the exception of certain line items at the jail.
"We have a constitutional obligation at the jail to house, feed and provide medical care for inmates, but we don't for EMS," said Marion. "There are no legal repercussions for not having an EMS, but there are people repercussions."
EMS Director Allen Dale Davis advised Marion that he should check on that issue because he understands that if the county receives funds for EMS, it must provide the service.
Marion told the commission that while the EMS building is in need of repair and one ambulance needs minor work, the main cause for concern is personnel costs. He explained that the financial situation is critical because the ambulance service lost a valuable income source when it lost a dialysis patient whose insurance paid well, other reimbursement sources cut back on the amount they pay, and the opening of the new hospital not only cut into revenue through patients being able to take themselves to the local facility but also through shorter trips and a smaller reimbursement for transporting other patients.
He stressed that the financial situation has nothing to do with management.
Davis said a supplement program may provide additional funds, but it will be summer before that money can start coming in, if it does.
When Marion said it will take at least $111,000 to operate the service through the end of the fiscal year, Commissioner Junior Hopkins observed that it would take a 75 cent tax increase to cover the loan on that amount. He said he is not willing to vote for that, and at least 100 people in his district have told him to "shut it down."
At this point in the discussion, several in the audience involved themselves, offering suggestions of increasing the wheel tax to more equitably spread the burden among county residents. Ronnie Collins, director of the Morristown EMS Department, offered to review the Hancock billing system.
Davis welcomed his offer but advised commissioners that his billing software is hopelessly out of date, and the only fix is to spend even more money for an update.
Commissioner Charles Dunsmore instructed Davis to immediately shut down one ambulance and lay off all unnecessary workers. But after Davis questioned whether he should continue making routine transport calls - which do produce revenue - so he could have a vehicle for emergencies, Dunsmore eventually told him to keep operating as normal until directed otherwise.
Commissioners will take up the issue again today at their regular quarterly meeting, but they also agreed to call another meeting once Collins has time to examine the billing system and other aspects of the operation.