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Rural ambulance service hot topic at council meeting

 


Some people at the Havre City Council meeting Monday complained that the first they heard about a conflict about funding Havre Fire Department providing ambulance service outside city limits was just before the deadline the city imposed for the county to respond.

Close to a dozen people spoke during the public comment section, generally complaining that they were just hearing about an issue simmering for several years.

Havre Mayor Tim Solomon said at the start of the discussion of the issue that he sent a letter Feb. 21 to the Hill County Commission requesting that the county increase its contribution to funding the city ambulance services, but the county didn’t respond until the middle of last week.

The letter said that, under the current model, the city would not be able to financially operate an ambulance service outside the city limits.

The letter said 28 percent of ambulance calls come from outside the city, but the county only contributed 5 percent, $26,768 of the total $523,961 subsidy for the 2019 fiscal year, which the letter said, is disproportionately low and represents a funding shortage of $119,941.

The letter said that, in 1977, the commissioners agreed to levy one mill in support of the ambulance service and in 1985, the amount of support arbitrarily was reduced to 2/3 of a mill with the county rural ambulance service receiving the other 1/3. 

Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson was at the meeting listening to the discussion.

Solomon said this is not the first letter to go to the commission. The city has sent multiple letters in years past.

“The only way to really get them to talk to us and move forward to correct the issue was to put a deadline on it, which would’ve been lined up for July 1,” he said. “... We’re in the middle of trying to budget and move forward. The ambulance is a very costly thing for the city, and we need to discuss where we’re going with the city as far as the ambulance service.”

He said the city is subsidizing the service at more than half a million dollars a year out of the city’s general fund.

He said it’s going to be the public’s decision on what is being done between the city and the county, but discussion is happening.

“This is an education thing, to start the talks on,” Solomon said. “The education of what our options are, what it’s going to cost and if we want to continue down the same road we are or if we want to look at other options.”

Havre is a unique city, he said, as far as running an ambulance service, because larger cities have private ambulances.

It is not 100 percent of cities, he added, they also create districts to fund the ambulance service, he said.

Solomon said that the county has said it doesn’t have the funding.

He said the city has meetings lined up with the commission to sit down and discuss the issue.

“Our mission was to discuss and look for ideas to move forward, and I think we’re starting to break loose and move that way,” Solomon said. “... It’ll come to the public, I’m sure, as far as what direction we do go with in the long run, but hopefully that we come to some reasonable solution between us to move forward.”

Havre Fire Chief Mel Paulson told the council that, as of Monday, a total of 162 calls this year have been outside the city limits.

Solomon also said the salaries of firefighters who are also emergency medical technicians are based off the number of calls between fire and ambulance calls.

City Finance Director and Clerk Doug Kaercher said the level of funding that the ambulance requires to stay operational is unsustainable for just the city of Havre to fund it at the level it is.

“The county either needs to participate with us or we need to come up with a new way of funding this ambulance for the community,” he said. 

Solomon said one of the options they are looking at is using a private ambulance service, setting up districts or using mill levies to fund service.

He said they need to discuss all options because the city can’t afford to continue with what is currently being done.

He added that, whatever decision is made, he would like it on the ballot this November because it would be the best thing to do in moving forward.

If it goes to the ballot, he said, it will be another year before the first dollars come from it.

During public comment many expressed concerns about why the public is finding out about this now.

Patti Solomon said most people in the county didn’t realize there was problem.

Mayor Solomon said that’s why they had this on the agenda, to educate the public for the discussion on moving forward with the ambulance service.

Why is this a problem all of a sudden, asked another attendee who could not be identified and who declined to give his name after the meeting.

“Why haven’t we been looking at this in the past rather than 2020?” he asked.

Solomon said the city has sent numerous letters in the past to the county but the county as not responded, and now they need to do something to move forward.

Another speaker who could not be identified and declined to give his name after the meeting, said he has lived in the county for 10 years and this is the first he has heard of what is going between the city and the county.

“How come this wasn’t brought up to the public’s knowledge apparently years ago to where it’s not coming down to this?” he asked. “You finally sent a threatening letter — this is how it’s going to be July 1 done. How come this hasn’t happened a couple years ago, because I think if you guys would’ve come up with this a couple years ago some things probably would have gotten taken care of better then, then all of sudden, nope and done.”

Solomon said the county has ignored them.

The speaker said that the county and city needs to figure out who they are representing and “get off their butts” and start talking to them.

“This right here ticks me off,” he said. “People need to find who your representatives are, figure out where this is going to go. They need to get a hold of their elected officials, the city needs to do theirs, the county needs to do theirs and people just need to get off their high horse and get something done to protect the county citizens, the city citizens, everything.”

Now that discussion is happening, Solomon said, the ambulance service will not be cut off on July 1, but the city can’t continue subsidizing it at the current levels.

During the meeting, Andrew Brekke was also administered in the  Oath of Office as a new council member in Ward 3.

The City Council Finance Committee met before City Council and approved the May claims and manual warrants.

The next Havre City Council meeting is Monday, July 6 at 7 p.m. in City Hall.

 

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