Commissioners to consider amended franchise for private EMS service

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During busy periods when other ambulance services are fully engaged, Buncombe County has used private emergency medical provider Medical Emergency Ambulance to respond to emergency calls, which falls outside the terms of the organization’s franchise agreement with the county.

The county contracts with Medic to provide non-emergency medical transports in unincorporated parts of the county. Even though the franchise is technically limited to these kinds of calls, interim County Manager George Wood said the county does use Medic as an ambulance when other units are tied up.

“Therefore, we need to amend this franchise ordinance to reflect how we actually operate,” Wood wrote in a memo to commissioners on Jan. 30.

On Tuesday, March 5, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will consider a proposal to award an updated franchise to Medic, allowing the company to use the county’s 700 mhz radio system and respond to calls when its ambulance crews are closest to an incident.

“What we have been doing is outside the franchise ordinance,” Medic’s Kermit Tolley told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 5. “We’re merely trying to come within the legalities of the ordinance to continue doing what we’re doing.”

Wood presented a proposal to commissioners at their meeting on Feb. 5, suggesting that the board amend the franchise agreement to allow Medic to provide full ambulance services in unincorporated areas for one year under specified conditions. “If you are pleased with the service level, the franchise can be extended for more years,” Wood told commissioners.

Citing a recent study of the county’s EMS system, some commissioners expressed concern that granting the amended franchise could cut into the revenues generated by county fire departments.

“You either have to raise the tax rates to make up the revenue, or the existing public operations will have to cut personnel or funding for equipment,” Newman said. “I think that’s just the simple math of the situation, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t some positives to this, too. But those are pretty big negatives that we have to think about before supporting this.”

Wood said in his Jan. 30 memo that he had discussed the issue with county Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun. Based on that conversation, Wood wrote, he believes revenue loss from the proposed service expansion would be minimal. “If we can work out the logistics of dispatching, we should be able to integrate this service at no cost to the county, other than the revenue cited above,” Wood wrote.

During the Feb. 5 meeting, Commissioner Amanda Edwards asked for a cost-benefit analysis and questioned why the services hadn’t been put out for a request for proposals. “We have continued to talk about transparency and accountability,” she said. “There hasn’t been anything out, and I’ve been told that there isn’t another provider, but we haven’t put that out to give another provider an opportunity.”

Wood said there are two reasons the county wouldn’t do an RFP in this scenario: The county would be formalizing an existing relationship with Medic, and no other identified ambulance services operate in the county. “My guess is if you did an RFP, the only person who would respond would be him,” Wood said, referring to Tolley.

Commissioner Joe Belcher said issuing an RFP would be “kicking the can down the road.”

“We’ve been talking about this thing for a long time,” Belcher said. “We can try it, and if it works, great. … To me, it’s just a sensible thing to try.”

On Feb. 5, the board voted to 4-3 to ask staff to draft an updated contract, with Newman, Edward and Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara voting in the minority.

In other business

  • The Board of Commissioners will hold a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, to swear in Avril Pinder as the new permanent county manager. Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint her to the position on Feb. 5.
  • The board will hear an “informational presentation” by Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller, an agenda item that was requested by Beach-Ferrara, Edwards and Commissioner Al Whitesides. Miller recently announced the department will no longer honor “detainer” requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold individuals suspected of immigration violations until they can be picked up by ICE.
  • Commissioners will vote on several contracts associated with the Enka Recreation Destination Project, a $12 million project funded by local, federal and private sources, as well as money from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. The project includes improvements to the Buncombe County Sports Park and the Bob Lewis Ballpark as well as the creation of the Enka Heritage Trail.
  • Commissioners will again consider a funding proposal for capital projects at A-B Tech. More coverage of that plan here: “County approves A-B Tech funding plan in split vote” and “A-B Tech trustees accept compromise on sales tax funding.”

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, in the third-floor meeting room at 200 College St. in Asheville. Click here for the agenda and supporting documents.

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About David Floyd
David Floyd was a reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press.

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