Thursday, June 13, 2024

Leland’s Public Safety Committee asks Council to reconsider EMS transfer to county

Leland's Public Safety Committee is pushing back on a decision that's being accelerated by the town's administration, which memorializes Brunswick County's move to assume operation of the town's EMS system. Counties in North Carolina have the authority to terminate or authorize EMS franchise agreements.

Leland Fire Rescue will soon lose its Emergency Medical Service wing, which will be transferred and managed by Brunswick County in less than two months. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Leland Fire Rescue)
Leland Fire Rescue will soon lose its Emergency Medical Service wing, which will be transferred and managed by Brunswick County in less than two months. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Leland Fire Rescue)

LELAND — Leland’s Public Safety Committee voted unanimously to ask Council to not sign a Memorandum of Understanding that commemorates handing the town’s recently-acquired EMS system to Brunswick County.

The request — at odds with Leland administration’s recommendation — arose out of concerns shared Tuesday by multiple Public Safety Committee members.

Related: What’s going on with transfer of Leland EMS to Brunswick County?

According to North Carolina General Statute §153A-250, counties are authorized to grant or terminate ambulance service franchise agreements. Regardless of whether leland Town Council approves the Memorandum or Understanding (MOU), the county has the sole authority to carry out the termination of Leland Fire Rescue’s EMS franchise agreement.

Leland sent Brunswick County a resolution approved by Council in mid-April, asking to be refunded for its entire estimated $813,000 EMS draft budget shortfall (rather than a prorated figure for services offered in unincorporated county areas). On May 6, the county presented its response, which proposed to terminate its franchise agreement with Leland Fire Rescue and assume the same level of service at a lower cost.

The county estimated it could conservatively offer the same service — eight paramedics with one 24-hour ambulance — at only a $153,849 loss, costing overall $788,151 less than Leland’s draft budget costs. Days after the county’s draft budget workshop presentation, Leland issued a press release, describing the town’s cooperation with the transition.

Missy Rhodes, Leland’s assistant town manager, said cutting EMS costs would mean no tax increase. As of last month, the town included a 4-cent, 19-percent tax increase in its draft 2019-2020 budget.

PSC pushback

At Tuesday’s meeting, Public Safety Committee members raised concerns about the rapid pace of the transfer, the drastic cost difference, and the town’s apparent willingness to let an internationally-recognized system dissolve. Leland’s administration maintains the town has no choice to debate the transfer either way according to state law.

Lyle Johnston, deputy director of Brunswick County EMS, said Tuesday decision-making occurred at the administrative level. Johnston repeated the known sequence of events, and added he understood the decision arose after Leland’s resolution, then he provided his administration requested financial estimates, and “a talk between two administrations took place.”

“So this was, a kind of like, unusual request? For $800,000?” Thom Becker, Public Safety Committee member asked.

Johnston confirmed: “Very much so.”

Dennis Michaliga, the committee’s chairman, called the transition a “takeover,” to which Leland manager David Hollis aimed to correct the characterization of, by calling it a “transfer.”

“I’m not going to get in an argument with you, but quite frankly sir, it certainly looks like a takeover,” Michaliga said. “I can’t believe that it was a willing transfer — I’ll put it that way.”

Noting the county’s positive EMS reputation, Michaliga said he still can’t get over the way things are playing out.

“The thing that has amazed me the most about this whole situation which is near and dear to me is the speed in which this has occurred,” he said. “I wish that half of the effort that has gone into H2GO, [Cape Fear Crossing]. I’ve never seen Leland back away from a fight.”

Later, Rhodes explained the town waived its 60-day notice, which sped up the transfer by two months, to account for anticipated EMS employees resigning and the inability of the town to hire someone for a short period of time.

“I feel sorry for the employees of Leland. I really do. And I know that they’ve been offered positions. I don’t think it’s the same. I’m afraid that the message – and this is me, perception – they are not getting the backing of the town,” Michaliga said Tuesday. “And I think that it’s not only going to play out to the employees of the fire and EMS. But I think every employee could in the back of their mind be thinking, ‘Are they going to back me up’…?”

Town to review Thursday

Johnston said the county only provides minimal local EMS reimbursement to St. James and Holden Beach’s Coastline Volunteer Rescue Squad — a franchise agreement the county is also seeking to terminate.

Following a discussion of Leland’s aging population, Johnston noted call volume at the northern end of Brunswick County will increase by 50 percent in 2025. The county’s EMS system has more resources and a larger system, which can help cut costs.

Rhodes explained the price difference, noting this budget cycle, the town separated fire and EMS expenses. Though the town has only owned Leland Fire Rescue for less than two years after acquiring it as a non-profit, these costs were previously combined under the department’s joint fire and EMS model. The department needed new equipment, Rhodes said, and a new ambulance this year. “That kind of contributes to some of that greater discrepancy,” she said. Also, Rhodes pointed out overhead costs including the chiefs’ salaries.

“I still can’t wrap my head around the $700,000 difference. A lot of this expense is in the planning budget and so on. So the town, we really missed our plan and our budget by that amount?” Becker asked. “That’s a lot of taxpayer money.”

Steve Schrimpf, Public Safety Committee member, discussed how historically and nationally, EMS is not a profit-generating service.

“At a time when our community is growing exponentially — we’re cutting services. I can’t wrap my mind around that. I’m the CEO of a company, I would never cut resources when we’re going through a growth phase,” Schrimpf said. “It just seems like we’ve just accepted that this is going to occur.”

Brunswick County Commissioners approved signing the proposed MOU Monday. It appears on Leland’s consent agenda for Council’s regular meeting Thursday.

Consent agenda items are considered routine in nature and are rarely amended in public meetings. The committee wants the process to slow down, allowing more time for clarifications and public input.

After the committee passed its motion to urge Council to reconsider signing the MOU, Hollis disagreed with the decision.

“For us not to agree to it will be foolish. And I will not make that recommendation to the Council,” Hollis said. Hollis referenced how the county is already obligated to provide service in the area and has the power to determine ambulance service providers. “By state statute, they are in control of it.”

Council’s regular meeting, on Thursday, May 23, will begin at 6 p.m. at Leland Town Hall.

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