POINT PLEASANT — It’s no secret the last few budget years in Mason County have been difficult and this upcoming budget year appears to be no different.
On Thursday afternoon, representatives from the Mason County Ambulance Authority Board, along with all local fire departments, met with the Mason County Commission to discuss the possibility of putting a levy to the voters to generate revenue to maintain services.
In recent years, funding to these outside agencies has been gradually reduced by the county commission, which is constitutionally obligated to fund the offices within the courthouse first. The county has been dealing with a declining tax base, hit particularly hard in the last few years by the shutdown of the Philip Sporn Plant in New Haven, making slices of the budget pie smaller and smaller.
Commissioners Tracy Doolittle, Miles Epling and Rick Handley called the meeting Thursday to gauge the funding situations at each department and the ambulance authority. None of the commissioners had any numbers to present in terms of the county’s upcoming budget, though Handley acknowledged the county couldn’t give those in the room what they needed and the situation would likely get worse before it got better.
This scenario brought the idea of a levy to the table.
Speaking first were representatives from the fire departments in Mason County. The assessments of how they were doing financially ranged from “not good” to “stable … barring anything happening.” In addition to cuts in funding, fire departments are also facing escalating training and certification costs, as well as the expense of maintaining equipment. It’s estimated turnout gear for a volunteer firefighter can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $1,900. Maintaining vehicles, gear and certification are all part of maintaining ISO ratings which affect the insurance rates paid by residents under their fire protection. If the ISO ratings start to slide, the insurance premiums increase.
Also speaking at the meeting, Chuck Blake, director of Mason County EMS, who painted a bleak picture in terms of funding for his agency which had absorbed a $33,000 bill to cover the raise in minimum wage this year and has $949,000 owed to the agency in regards to services provided without payment in return. These were just a few of the operating shortfalls EMS has been facing along with shouldering the cost of staying in compliance with the Affordable Healthcare Act and billing practices. He said the agency is often at the mercy of insurance agencies.
Blake added the ambulance authority was in a “catch 22” because if it cut back services, it cut potential for revenue. Blake added Mason County was the only ambulance authority in the local region which did not have some sort of operating levy and relied solely on billing.
“It’s do or die time for the ambulance authority,” Blake told commissioners, saying if the county cut the $60,000 it allocated for the agency last year, residents would not see the same EMS they see today, it just wouldn’t be financially possible to maintain.
Commissioners asked Blake and the fire chiefs to come up with a figure they would need in terms of proceeds from a levy. Commissioners and County Clerk Diana Cromley, who is also on the Mason County Library Board, said library board members had also expressed an interest in possibly being a part of a levy to offset cuts in funding to the library to maintain programs in the local communities. There was some discussion as to whether or not putting the library in with emergency services would work or not when put to voters. Some representatives from the fire departments were also concerned about each department getting an equal share of the levy and how that would work.
Ultimately, commissioners said they needed to have figures from agencies to determine millage. If approved, a levy would likely go on the November ballot due to a special election costing an estimated $50,000. The next meeting on this issue is at 4:45 p.m., March 24.
Doolittle and some of those gathered at the meeting acknowledged a levy may be a tough sell but, as one of the firefighters put it, “we have to try.” Epling said finding the money to maintain services was a matter of “survivorship for the county” and said everyone at the meeting needed to be on the same page and soon if it was decided to place a levy on the ballot in November.
Reach Beth Sergent at [email protected] or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.