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VOL. 131 | NO. 209 | Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Shelby County Commission Approves Ambulance Service Starting Jan. 1

By Bill Dries

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In a two-month period, Shelby County government has decided to add ambulances to the services provided by the Shelby County Fire Department after years of regular debates about the wisdom of contracting with private companies for the service.

“We are in the ambulance business,” county commissioner Terry Roland said Monday, Oct. 17, after unanimous commission approval of three resolutions totaling $7.5 million.

The specific resolutions approved Monday are a $5 million amendment in the county fire department budget to fill the 60 new positions, a $1.7 million contract with G&W Diesel Services Inc. to buy 12 ambulances and $2.5 million in an interfund loan that includes the $1.7 million to buy the ambulances.

The Shelby County Fire Department is to start providing ambulance service Jan. 1 with the commission’s approval Monday. That includes taking delivery of 12 ambulances and hiring 60 people cross-trained as paramedics and emergency medical technicians as well as firefighters.

The administration of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell put together the proposal after AMR Inc. – American Medical Response Inc. – sought an increase in county funding after having the county ambulance contract for three years.

The administration estimates it can provide the service from county firehouses for about $600,000 less than the county was paying AMR.

The ambulance service is being paid for with a 12 percent hike in the county fire fee in unincorporated Shelby County. The rate is based on square footage.

The ambulance service will also include Millington, Arlington and Lakeland, although Lakeland officials are considering starting their own ambulance service.

“It’s the right thing to do,” commissioner David Reaves said of the decision to end the contract with private bidders.

Roland said he had suspicions several years ago that AMR had underbid to get the contract. AMR officials have expressed doubts that county government can provide the same service with the same response time at the $600,000 savings the administration estimates. Representatives of the company were not present at Monday’s commission session.

“You were right. They did underbid,” county chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy told Roland. “But we did get three years of service at lower cost.”

Commissioner Heidi Shafer declared the county “well on our way.” But she wanted to know if an account of funds from the 9-1-1 phone system could be used to staff up ambulance service and/or buy the ambulances.

County public works director Tom Needham said the 9-1-1 funds could only be used to support the emergency call system. Shafer questioned whether the ambulances could be considered support since the system dispatches ambulances.

Needham said the critical difference is the 9-1-1 funds are used to support “answering the call not the response to the call.”

Commissioner Mark Billingsley was an alderman in Germantown when that city started its own ambulance service, a process he said was very detailed.

“I continue to be cautiously optimistic that this is going to work,” he said. “I hope we come close to what we anticipate. Ambulance service is not easy.”

The commission will get monthly reports on the county fire department’s response time on ambulance calls. The standard is nine to 10 and a half minutes with county fire director Alvin Benson touting an eight-minute average response time in committee sessions last week.

In other action Monday, the commission approved Luttrell’s appointment of Kathryn Williams Pascover as interim Shelby County Attorney.

Luttrell appointed Pascover, an attorney for the Ford & Harrison LLP law firm, in September as the second interim county attorney since Ross Dyer left the position to become a judge on the state court of criminal appeals in April 2016.

Assistant County Attorney Marcy Ingram was interim county attorney before Dyer became county attorney and again after Dyer left to become a judge.

The commission delayed a second reading vote on an ordinance that would have put a time limit on such interim appointments by the mayor without commission approval of the appointee.

“When you are going after the best you can get sometimes it takes a long time to get what you want,” Luttrell told commissioners as he sought “a little bit of latitude.”

Commissioner Terry Roland has proposed a 90-day limit on interim appointments but amended that to 120 days. The administration pushed for 180 days and commissioner Steve Basar moved that as an amendment. Roland agreed.

“Sometimes you have to do what it takes to get it on down the road,” Roland said.

Then Luttrell began questioning whether he would have to make another interim appointment at the end of such a time frame or whether the commission could grant an extension. He also questioned whether the commission was getting close to infringing on the appointing authority of the mayor under terms of the county charter.

That prompted the commission to send the ordinance back to committee.

The commission did the same with second reading of another ordinance that would put assistant county attorneys in the county’s civil service system, which would restrict the county mayor’s ability to fire them.

Roland and commissioner Heidi Shafer have been critical of Luttrell’s oversight of the county attorney’s office and have pushed for independent legal counsel for the commission.

Luttrell and his administration cite a provision in the county charter that says the county attorney is the legal counsel for all of county government including the commission and is the sole source of formal legal opinions.

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