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It’s time to use some vision on EMS/fire contract

It’s becoming an annual rite of spring, sometimes moving well into the summer. The ‘it’ is the annual dispute over the renewal of the EMS/fire services contract between the Village of Hebron and Union Township. Hebron provides EMS/fire services under contract to the unincorporated part of the township that is south of the CSX railroad.

This writer thought negotiations would be more amicable this year after Jack Justice was involuntarily retired by voters last November. Justice seemed to come up with an objection nearly every year that held up an agreement for months. Well, I was wrong.

In recent years – like relatives battling over an unexpected inheritance or lottery winnings, the issue has been how to allocate and spend revenue from EMS billing. Starting in July 2007, Hebron has been billing Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance companies whenever a covered patient was transported to a hospital. Though an agreement was reached last year, it’s been reopened and trustees also decided to challenge their contribution to Hebron’s operating expenses – the township has paid 60 percent for years but now want to reduce that to 50 percent.

So there is disagreement on two fronts – EMS billing revenue and allocation of expenses. The township wants 60 percent (the same as its contribution to operating expenses) of all EMS billing revenue no matter where it originated and to be able to use that revenue to pay part of its share of the department’s operating expenses. Hebron wants all the EMS billing revenue to be placed in a capital improvements account that would require both parties to approve any expenditures.

The dispute has gotten worse in the past 10 days. At last Thursday’s negotiating session, Union Township Trustees showed up with an assistant county prosecutor who challenged whether Hebron could even bill for EMS transports originating in the township. Trustee President John Slater suggested last week that if billing revenue is reserved for capital expenses, Hebron might make even more mutual aid runs with other departments which would increase overall expenses. In a special meeting Monday night, trustees discussed setting up their own EMS billing system. That would give them what they got last year – 100 percent of the revenue generated in the township – and less than what they want this year.

Before this dispute escalates further and gets turned over exclusively to lawyers and expensive consultants, we’ll offer some free advice. This contract has three objectives:

1. Provide Hebron and township residents and visitors with timely emergency medical services provided by well trained and equipped personnel;

2. Deliver timely fire protection for lives and property; and

3. Meet the first two objectives as cost efficiently as possible.

Union Township appears to be almost exclusively focused on cost or at least on what it has to pay. While the township’s two fire levies used to provide a comfortable margin over their payments to Hebron and Granville, that’s no longer the case. Hebron’s costs have increased, particularly as additional on-station staff is added. A couple of years ago, Granville Township took over the private Granville Fire Department. The township now provides 24/7 on-station staffing and costs have increased substantially as a result. Union Township used to pay less than $20,000 a year to Granville to cover the portion of the township north of the CSX railroad. Last year the township paid $65,000 and will pay $80,000 this year. The margin that used to allow trustees to make some capital purchases for the Hebron and Buckeye Lake departments has now disappeared. The township owns both Hebron medics, an engine and a pickup truck. Trustees can no longer play ‘rich uncle.’

Quite naturally, trustees are reluctant to propose a fire levy increase even though township residents are paying less than Buckeye Lake or Hebron residents. Union Township has two fire levies totalling 3.3 mills which are being collected at 3.177838 mills; Village of Buckeye Lake has one five mill levy, collected at 4.941380 mills; and Village of Hebron has two levies totalling 6 mills, being collected at 5.697614 mills.

While we admire trustees’ reluctance to propose tax increases and their concerns about increasing costs at Hebron and Granville, we would be much more impressed if they showed the same concern about costs totally under their control – like health insurance and their overstaffed road crew. However, we do sympathize with their belief that they are just signing bigger and bigger checks to both Hebron and Granville with little input into how those departments are run.

But we agree with Hebron that you can’t be a partner if you don’t act like one. Nearly every year, trustees, generally Jesse Ours, threaten to take back the township’s two medics, pumper and pickup. That threat, coupled with negotiations that often delay contract approval for months into the new contract year, makes Hebron officials wonder each year if this will be the one when the township walks away. It also doesn’t help that trustees’ concerns about costs aren’t based on specific suggestions or policies, but rather are just a desire to pay less.

Hebron and Union Township need each other. Hebron’s department would survive a township pullout, but the divorce would be very costly in terms of service reductions and equipment purchases. Union Township would be reinventing the wheel and would quickly find their costs higher than the Hebron contract.

Here are our suggestions.

1. Get rid of the lawyers for now and talk candidly with each other.

2. Reset negotiations, but this time for at least a three-year contract with both parties detailing how they believe the department should develop during that time. That shared vision should be part of the multi-year agreement. To improve response time in the township, that vision should include a sub-station with a medic and possibly a tanker somewhere on Ohio 37. Trustees have discussed moving their garage to a more central location for years. That move has the added benefit of improving road crew efficiency and removing an eyesore in Hebron. The vision should also include making some needed improvements at the Hebron station.

3. Earmark EMS billing revenue for capital improvements. Neither the township nor the village should depend on the highly variable revenues to fund day-to-day operations. I suspect, with Union Township acting like a real partner and making a multi-year commitment, Hebron would be willing to earmark the same percentage of billing revenue to the township as its operating expense share. That earmark should be spent on developing the new sub-station.

Other topics for discussion should include Hebron possibly offsetting some operational payments from the township in return for the gradual transfer of the ownership of the two medics, pumper and pickup to Hebron. That could delay the township’s need to seek an additional fire levy and get equipment ownership in the hands of the operator.

Of course, a joint fire district would also make Hebron and township real partners. Mayor Clifford Mason is a strong proponent for a fire district, but trustees have shown little interest in a district. A district would require all parties to give up any exclusive control for shared control which is probably too big of a jump for trustees at this point.

Nevertheless, both sides must recognize their responsibilities to their residents and taxpayers. Fire levy revenue doesn’t belong to the village or township. It is being paid in return for services. Both sides must focus on that basic principle. There’s no need to spend thousands of scarce dollars on lawyers and consultants to reach that same conclusion.

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