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home : news : news February 6, 2016

3/5/2014 12:01:00 AM
Future funding of ambulance service, facilities under discussion
Will Township residents be paying twice for first responder service?
Residents of Cross Village Township may have an additional question about the Ambulance Advisory Committee's funding plan. Gene Reck, Cross Village Township Supervisor, said he has some concerns about the "medical first responders/contingency" portion of the AAC's funding requirements plan.

According to the plan, $100,000 would be set aside each year for medical first responders (a medical first responder responds to an emergency, however, cannot provide ambulance transportation).

However, Cross Village already has a one mill tax it levies for its first responders, which helps cover the cost of operations, equipment, and training for the Readmond Friendship Cross Village Fire Department (which has trained medical first responder volunteers).

"I asked the question this summer, when the committee gathered a large group of people at the Harbor Springs Regional Airport for a discussion, but I've not yet heard a response. I don't think it's a good idea to have Cross Village residents have to pay for something twice, once with our own millage, and again with the county's."

Editor's Note: We are planning a series of follow-up articles about ambulatory care in this area, to provide readers with comprehensive coverage of this critical, and funding-challenged, community service. This first article begins to review the current funding requirements plan that was created by the county's Ambulance Advisory Committee, and how it relates to voters in Harbor Springs.

When it came to discussions about Emmet County's potential millage plan for helping to fund ambulatory care, there were more questions than answers at the Harbor Springs City Council meeting Monday, March 3. Charlie MacInnis, Emmet County Commissioner for District 3 (which encompasses the City of Harbor Springs, Little Traverse Township and a small portion of Bear Creek Township), attended the meeting to gather some initial thoughts from Harbor Springs elected officials on the proposal. The proposal calls for some $1.3 million in funding for emergency medical services each year.

The one-page, bullet-point plan did address the current Harbor Springs Allied EMS substation, located behind Fairview Square retail shopping center off State Rd. It did, however, include $1.5 million (spread over four years) worth of facilities to be constructed and owned or leased by the county, with two substations (one in the City of Petoskey and another in the Village of Mackinaw City) and one main six or seven bay facility somewhere along the M-119 corridor.

"I'm here tonight seeking input, not to sway you one way or another," MacInnis said when addressing the three members of Council in attendance. He said he was specifically concerned about gathering opinions on whether or not it is important to have a funded substation in Harbor Springs.

"The current substation (behind Fairview Square) works, but I think we can all agree it is not ideal," he noted. The City of Harbor Springs owns the building and leases it to Allied EMS for $1 a year.

Allied EMS, a private non-profit that receives a small (and, MacInnis noted, inadequate) portion of its funding from the county in the form of a .25 mill tax that will expire at the end of this year. An Ambulance Advisory Committee (AAC) of the Emmet County Board of Commissioners has been working for two years to come up with a better funding model. The result-- the one page document that got the nod from Commissioners in mid-February, has already been publicly denounced by Allied's board as a plan the board cannot support, because, according to a written statement "the numbers reached for facilities and equipment are significantly inadequate."

Committee members include Emmet County Board of Commissioners Les Atchison, Shawn Wonnacut, Larry Cassidy, and four "at-large" members: William Marvin, Randy Bricker Sr., Louis Fantini and Dennis Keiser. According to Commissioner Cassidy, representatives from Allied EMS and Mackinaw City's village-operated ambulance system, as well as McLaren Northern Michigan, North Central Michigan College, and the Medical Control Authority Director are included in the committee in a non-voting status.

"It was the recommendation of the AAC to the Board of Commissioners that the county will own or lease from a municipality all facilities. The recommendation further stated that the county will own all capital equipment (including ambulances, AED, cots, etc). This recommendation was approved by Commissioners in February," Cassidy said.

Commissioner MacInnis, however, said in an earlier interview with the Harbor Light that he has some reservations about the plan as it was presented.

"I am concerned because Harbor Springs taxpayers may be asked to pay a millage to fund facility upgrades elsewhere in the county but nothing for the Fairview facility which is already inadequate," he said. "It (the current Harbor substation) is close to the Emmet County Medical Care Facility (Bay Bluffs), Perry Farm Village, Birchwood, the Harbor Springs schools, a crowded summer community and the homes of many senior citizens, not to mention rural areas to the north."

Cassidy said in an interview with this newspaper that the Advisory Committee was not recommending the Harbor Springs substation be closed.

"Allied, who is the EMS provider in that area, can determine where to best position their ambulances from an operational standpoint," he said.

On Monday night, Harbor Springs mayor Al Dika posed on of many questions about this plan, asking who would pay of any upgrades needed to the Harbor Springs facility to keep it functioning in the future.

"If Harbor Springs isn't in the plan, where will the money come from?" he asked.

"I don't know," MacInnis said.

"I just don't see how there is enough information here to think about this plan at all," Council member Pringle Pfeifer added. "Where do these numbers come from (for facilities, equipment, operational subsidy, and medical first responders/contingency)? Where is the supporting documentation?"

MacInnis said in order to put a new millage on the August ballot, the Board of Commissioners needs to approve ballot language by May 13.

"We must act this year, because the current .25 millage is going to expire," he reiterated.

To narrow the discussion's focus even more, MacInnis asked this direct question of Council members: if the county is to levy a millage for ambulatory funding, do you think somewhere in that millage a facility in the vicinity (or just north of) Harbor Springs should be included?

All the Council members in attendance-- Dika, Pfeifer and John Cupps Sr.-- said yes.

"I think it's important to have a facility in the north end of Harbor Springs. It makes a big difference, especially in the summer months, for people who live along the lakeshore, or in Birchwood," Dika said.

MacInnis noted he spoke to representatives of Perry Farm/Hillside Village, who then wrote a letter to the County Board of Commissioners stressing the importance of having an ambulance substation close to senior housing facilities. He also visited with members HARBOR Inc., and that non-profit has written a letter-- mostly just requesting more information, executive director Rachel Smolinski noted-- to the Emmet County Board of Commissioners. As of press time, the regional planning non-profit had not received a response.

Dick Schiller, Harbor Springs Area Fire Department chief, former Allied EMS board member, and one of the folks originally involved in bringing ambulatory care to the area said during Monday night's meeting that having an ambulance in the city's backyard "is most definitely a benefit" to the community's emergency preparedness.

"We don't always have an ambulance in Harbor Springs as it is," he told Council members. "If the Petoskey station goes on a run, the ambulance in Harbor Springs will move. There are many times when this happens (there are only two ambulances on at any given time, with a back-up, on-call crew).

'What worries me is that I don't think the advisory committee or Board of Commissioners are asking the right questions of the right people. They aren't talking to the paramedics. They are crunching numbers, instead of talking to those who are out there every day, caring for the citizens of this community," Schiller said.

In an earlier interview with this newspaper, Schiller expounded on his concerns.

"When 'Emmet Ambulance' was formed years ago through volunteer efforts, the City of Harbor Springs provided the location and building realizing the importance of having an ambulance service in our community," he said. "Many of our community members made generous donations to Emmet Ambulance and later to Allied EMS with the understanding that they were supporting the Harbor Springs area ambulance service."

MacInnis too, touched on the ways Allied EMS has benefited from the generosity of Harbor Springs community members.

"Many of Allied's ambulances, new radio gear, and other equipment was purchased by two generous donors from Harbor Springs for the benefit of the entire county. Fair play would suggest that the favor should be returned," he noted.

Cassidy said the planned next steps for the AAC are as follows: begin the process for procuring design services for the renovation of the Petoskey site that Allied currently operates on Curtis Avenue; also determine how the annual funding requirements will be met. That, Cassidy said, is being done by county staff members and some Board of Commissioners.

"The county has been extremely pleased with the services provided to our residents and visitors by both of our EMS providers," Cassidy said. "The current model that the Board of Commissioners has adopted is going to stabilize the EMS system in terms of capital improvements of the facilities and equipment used by both providers.

Cassidy said "the county is very optimistic" that the model proposed will provide stability for the long-term ambulatory needs in Emmet County, citing that as the purpose for the Ambulance Advisory Committee's creation several years ago.

MacInnis, however, is not so sure. He said he plans to continue to seek more information from the county, and continue to pull in as much input as possible from communities he represents.

"I understand that there may be data indicating that Fairview isn't needed for good ambulance service in our area. I don't doubt the data exists, I just have not seen it or read an expert analysis of it. The data should be shared with the voters of Harbor Springs so that they can study the issue and decide for themselves."

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