MOUNT CARMEL — In a closed meeting Tuesday evening at their Mount Carmel station, Church Hill EMS employees received news that their doors were shutting and the company is out of business.
It was devastating news on two levels.
Approximately 47 employees, many of whom have worked at Church Hill EMS for more than a decade, are out of work.
And the ambulance company that served eastern Hawkins County for more than two decades is no longer in operation.
Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell said that as of Tuesday night the Rogersville-based Hawkins County EMS was covering the CHEMS territory, with Sullivan County EMS on standby to assist if needed.
Church Hill EMS President Fred Arnold said he doesn’t know what the next step for the company is.
However, he said he and the board of directors will be meeting with their attorneys, but he suspected bankruptcy is a likely option.
Tuesday’s closed meeting became heated at times. Finger-pointing was visible through the front window until the blinds were closed, and at times screaming and yelling could be heard coming from inside the building.
Afterward Arnold told the Times-News he had to inform employees that Church Hill EMS didn’t receive the loan needed to continue operating and that the company was closing.
“I really don’t know the legal of it,” Arnold said. “It’s a nonprofit organization. Nobody owns it. That’s something I’ll have to get with the attorney — the different routes, whether it be Chapter 11, or maybe merging with another nonprofit.”
Arnold said Church Hill EMS has assets exceeding $3 million, but he also reportedly told employees there is debt exceeding $800,000.
Arnold accepted part of the blame for the company’s failure, but he said there were several reasons.
“The economy, and maybe I reacted too slow,” Arnold said. “Maybe I should have reacted quicker, but our revenue started dropping off, and Medicare tightens up and affects your revenue, and our revenue has been going down.”
Employees had the option of finishing their shifts after the meeting Tuesday.
But apparently no one has been getting paid since Sunday morning. According to Hawkins County Central Dispatch, none of the CHEMS units went back into service after Tuesday’s meeting.
News of the company’s financial crisis wasn’t made public until Friday, when CHEMS employees were informed by then director Brenda Joyner that the company had only enough funds to make payroll when they get their checks Friday.
They were told that when the new payroll cycle began at 7 a.m. Sunday, there is no money to pay CHEMS employees for that payroll cycle.
Employees were also reportedly told by Joyner that as of Sept. 1, the company would stop making employee health insurance payments, the company was months behind on paying some of its bills and there was no money available to restock supplies on their ambulances.
Following that meeting with her staff, Joyner was apparently fired.
Arnold told the county commission’s Public Safety Committee during an emergency meeting Saturday that he had been denied a $150,000 loan by two banks.
Although he told commissioners Monday he’d had a “positive” meeting with lenders that morning, Arnold told the Times-News Tuesday night there was no coming back at this point.
Employees were very emotional as they left Tuesday’s meeting.
Tricia Kelly, whose husband has worked at CHEMS for 19 years, blamed Arnold and his board of directors for the company’s failure.
“His (Arnold’s) lack of transparency caused this,” Kelly said. “He told us in there that because it got leaked to the media, that didn’t help with the banks turning him down. But because of his actions, and the actions of the board of directors, they have put the lives of everyone who lives in Hawkins County at risk.”
Kelly added, “He and the board of directors had nothing to lose. They’ve all got jobs. He’s retired from the Eastman. He had nothing to lose by not telling every employee here. So now the market’s going to be flooded with people trying to find jobs.”
Kelly said her husband and many of his coworkers now have no choice but to file for unemployment.
“(Arnold) is talking about filing Chapter 11 or possibly merging with another entity,” she said. “Who’s going to take on $800,000 worth of debt? Not to mention the bills that are out that haven’t been paid. The vendors that haven’t been paid. He just bought brand new ambulances. Why did he do that if he knew for the past two years that it was in jeopardy like this?”
Hawkins County Commissioner John Metz, who serves on the Public Safety Committee, said Lifeguard EMS has expressed an interest in assisting with Hawkins County ambulance coverage if needed.
In a close vote last year, the Hawkins County Commission voted against giving Lifeguard a franchise to operate as a third ambulance service in the county.