This spring will be a critical time for controversial decisions by the Pocahontas County Commission. Faced with an imminent crisis as the lack of EMS-trained volunteers to staff ambulances across the county threatens their response time to emergency calls, the commission has been forced to consider controversial funding issues.
During recent meetings, Commissioner John Rebinski, who himself is an EMS responder with the Cass Volunteer Fire Department, has pointed out that the county needs to establish a paid ambulance service, made up of EMS trained providers and ambulance drivers, to ensure the timely arrival of medical care to citizens and visitors who need it.
How such an ambulance service will be started, how it will be funded and how it will be maintained are some of the decisions the commission is wrestling with.
Regarding funding, so far, the commission, by a two to one vote, revamped the way the lucrative Hotel/Motel Tax is distributed, setting aside for this year an additional $200,000 for the ambulance service start-up. While doing this, they also approved controversial revisions to the tax distribution, which had been proposed by Rebinski.
These approved revisions change the percentages of that tax received by various organizations, reducing slightly the percentages received by Preserving Pocahontas, the Arts Council, Parks and Recreation and the Libraries, while slightly increasing the percentages received by Historic Land- marks and Dramas, Fairs and Festivals, and eliminating entirely any Hotel/Motel Tax funding of the Artisan’s Co-op.
Even more significantly, these changes put a monetary cap on the six organizations still receiving percentages of the tax funds. Rebinski felt that without a cap, if the Hotel/Motel Tax receipts continue to rapidly increase as they have for the past few years, the percentage system will continually increase the amount of money going to those organizations beyond what they actually need – however if the money is there, it will be spent, needed or not.
The changes also included providing five percent, plus any additional money saved because of the caps, to a new category called the Commission Hotel/Motel Tax fund. At Helmick’s insistence, the first $200,000 of that new category will be set aside to ensure that PMH is able to make its monthly payments on its $5 million USDA expansion loan, while any money in that fund above that amount can be distributed to either the existing six organizations or to other qualifying non-profit organizations who apply for it to meet special or emergency needs.
Rebinski and Helmick voted for this proposal, rejecting Commissioner Jamie Walker’s proposal to simply add $200,000 off the top for the start-up of an ambulance service, without changing the percentages for the organizations and without cutting out the Artisan’s Co-op or placing caps on the funds. Walker said that either way, the commission will need to come-up with another $800,000 to cover the first year of paid ambulance service for the entire county.
Hard and controversial decisions that remain to be made include:
• Will the ambulance proposal be started initially as a dayshift only service in the northern end of the county, followed later by expansion to the rest of the county, as proposed by Rebinski, or as Walker wants, be started as quickly as possible in the entire county on a 24/7 basis?
• Where will the needed extra money, above the initial $200,000 from the Hotel-Motel Tax come from. Will it be paid for by applying for grants, which can take a while to be approved? By using some of the $1 million from the American Rescue Act, which they have available, but which so far Rebinski and Helmick want to use to build a new courthouse annex? Or will they be able to rush through an ordinance establishing an EMS fee to be paid by all county taxpayers, which might take awhile to generate the needed money? Or by some other means we do not know about?
• Will volunteer fire departments in the rest of the county be willing to provide, on a loan basis, a fully equipped ambulance for the exclusive use of the paid County Ambulance Service, as Cass VFD has done for the northern end of the county.
• Will they be able to hire enough paid EMS personnel to crew the new county service?
• How will the commission prioritize their proposed upcoming projects, which include the creation of the paid ambulance service; building a courthouse annex; building a new 911 Center near the hospital; and installing new water and sewer systems to serve PMH, Marlinton Middle School and possibly residents of Buckeye?
The commissioners certainly have their work cut out for them.