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Ailing rescue units ‘just the tip’

Last week one of the county’s ambulances, while transporting a patient, had mechanical problems that prompted rescue personnel to call for a backup unit because the ambulance was “limping in,” as EMS director David Richardson put it this week.

That’s what they call it when the ambulance won’t accelerate above 15 mph because it could cause engine damage.

“It’s another one of those computer things,” said Mr. Richardson.

I had just mentioned what mechanics have been telling me for more than year about my SUV — that the sensor on the rear differential was on the fritz and it would be a cool $80 just to “diagnose” the bug.

I always smile and say, “That’s alright. I’ll just ignore the warning light on my dash board.”

The county, however, can’t be so careless, particularly with all those ambulance-chasing trial lawyers running around.

The county commission did recently approve the purchase of two new ambulances for the EMS department. But they’re not expected to arrive until mid-November.

Mr. Richardson said he down-graded some of the bells and whistles to keep the units under budget. He described the shedding of some “niceties” like the multiplex electrical systems, which basically control everything on the truck from the AC to the oxygen to the lights. The multiplex would’ve been nice, he said, but also expensive to repair.

The transport ambulance that slowed to 15 mph in Baldwin last week while hauling a patient from Macclenny to Jacksonville doesn’t appear to be an easy fix, either.

That was the afternoon of August 10. The ambulance was taken in for repairs, which apparently didn’t stick, because the same malfunction happened again on August 16.

“It’s a problem,” said Mr. Richardson. “Hopefully we can get it back on the road pretty soon.”

The unit, which the county recently sunk $2,000 into to fix the air conditioning, has more than 200,000 miles. It serves as a back up unit to two so-called 9-1-1 units that respond to emergencies. When three calls arrive in at the same time, the transport truck comes to the rescue.

At least it used to.

The transport unit was purchased in 2008 with grant money, not local property taxes. It actually runs a surplus, say county officials, generating more revenue than it costs to run the unit. It helps offset a portion of the losses the EMS department as a whole experiences each year.

The rest is subsidized by the county’s general fund, which gets the lions share of its cash from property taxes.

Property assessments are a little different. They’re flat fees and don’t fluctuate with changes in the value of one’s property.

The county has fees that help fund the solid waste and fire departments, but they don’t cover the cost of operating the dump sites or keeping a full-time fire chief and his cadre of dedicated volunteers responding to emergencies.

Again, the general fund makes up the shortfall.

Sheriff’s office services — essentially law enforcement and housing costs for local inmates — are also not  fully funded by the local property taxes dedicated to those ends.

The county’s property tax, or millage, rate is actually the total of three millage rates for general revenue, the health department and the sheriff’s office. And guess which one makes up the sheriff’s office deficit?

That good ol’ general fund.

With the exception of some grant monies, sales tax disbursements and gas taxes (which fund county road projects), general revenue accounts for the bulk of the county’s spending, as it should.

But what the county has is a patch-work funding model that depends on the general fund to offset shortfalls everywhere else. And when the general fund runs out, as it’s expected to again this year, it appears the county commission is resigned to making up the deficit with reserves.

Again.

As commissioners said this year and last, you can only go to the well so many times before it’s dry. And it’s not as though the county’s spending is extravagant.

There’s the ailing ambulance. Garbage disposal and other municipal services like road improvements are provided on shoestring budgets. There are more local inmates than tax dollars to house them.

I would hazard to say the Great Recession didn’t cause these issues, but rather exacerbated structural weaknesses in the current system.

Without new revenue or more cuts in the limited services now provided, the county will soon find itself without a rainy day fund. The board’s view that a new fee for EMS and higher fee for solid waste is a good start.

Property owners are picking up the bill anyway through the general fund, but some more so than others. Property tax exemptions for homesteads, agricultural use and other circumstances skew the burden.

Any move to make the system more fair and more fiscally sound should be welcomed.

 

 

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