By Heather Clower
The Parsons Advocate
A small crowd gathered at the September 9 meeting of the Tucker County Commission, which Commissioner Jon Bush attended via phone. The Commissioners are aware of a multitude of errors that occurred when the 2020 EMS Fee statements were sent out which included duplicates, unnecessary late charges, and more. A statement was put out on the internet and social media that explained to the residents how to proceed, though a few attended to voice their concerns in person.
Lois Arbogast shared her first concern over a late fee being added to her bill stating she didn’t pay her bill before the deadline, though she and County Administrator Sheila DeVilder had it paid on time. She also suggested that the company chosen to do the billing, who she believed to be located out of state, not be utilized in the future if they are to blame for the billing errors. She asked how much the company was being paid to do the billing and if that was paid for out of the EMS fund. Commission President Lowell Moore confirmed they were out of state and were paid approximately $6,000 which is paid for out of the EMS fee. “It was less than what we were paying previously,” Moore added. “There were major errors, we agree with that,” he said.
Arbogast also stated that she was under the impression that the fee was set to remain at $50 for at least five years, which ends after the next billing year. She has spoken to other individuals that have said they will stop paying their fees that they have been paying if those who have not been paying theirs are not made accountable. “You need to be getting this done and getting it done right,” she said. “I don’t hold you two men and Jon Bush who are present commissioners solely responsible for this,” she continued as she acknowledged the Assessor’s Office and other entities are involved. “There’s been enough time to get this homework done and get it right, that’s the part that disturbs me,” Arbogast said.
She continued with concerns relating to the Ambulance Authority Board and the use of the funds. “They need to start answering to County Commission, they backed you guys in a corner when they were down, they didn’t have a dime to spend, and you guys had to act on this ordinance mighty fast,” she said. “There are just too many things that’s not right in this and it’s been long enough to do it.” She concluded, “The problems have not been solved, we don’t have any better EMS service from what I can hear and find out than we did since before this fee was enacted.”
Mike Price stated that Arbogas addressed several of his concerns, though asked why local individuals couldn’t have been used to do the billing, even if it was more expensive initially it would save money in the long run.
His second agenda item was to request the records of Ben Herrick’s (from the Planning Commission) for the past three years. Moore and County Clerk Sherry Simmons guided Price on the proper avenues to take to obtain those public documents. Moore also assured Price that the proposal from the Planning Commission is something that will not be voted upon until round table discussion and public engagement has been executed.
Oaky Eye said, “Fred, I’ve got to say, you’ve let me down,” as he referred to Commissioner Fred Davis signing the latest EMS fee revision. “If you oppose it, you should never sign,” Eye added. “Lowell, you’ve run this whole thing down our throats since the word ‘Go’.” Eye said that Moore supposedly told him outside of a meeting that the reason the fee wasn’t put to a public vote was because he knew it wouldn’t pass. He continued saying that several residents within Tucker County are retired or do not have the money to pay the $50 per year. “And now you’ve hired people to bill us for this stuff from outside, again that’s wrong,” Eye said. Eye requested to see accountability of the EMS fee and how the money was spent.
Simmons responded that when the fees are received by DeVilder, the money is deposited into a special account which withdrawals are made upon request from the EMS. “That’s where you’ll have to go for the accountability,” she confirmed. She then guided him to the necessary steps to take to obtain that information, much like Price. Simmons stated she could provide information regarding the funds taken in, but as for how the money was spent that would be through EMS. Arbogast addressed Eye stating that she had asked several times for the same paperwork he is requesting and has yet to get them. She also stated she was under the impression that Station 1 only pays the phone bill for use of the facility because the Commission allows them to operate through that facility rent free.
Donald Eye stood and reiterated about the inability for several to afford the $50 fee. “You’re taking food off their table, they can’t afford that,” he said. He also feels it should have been voted upon or set at a more “reasonable amount”. D. Eye asked if the fee was going to remain the same each year or if plans were to increase the amount due every so often and agreed accountability needs to be made.
Moore made final statements, beginning with acknowledging again the errors were made. In reference to handling the billing in house, the Sheriff’s Department was near agreement to do so, however they were informed that in order to do so, their time would have to be separated between EMS and County Commission business. “That is impossible,” Moore confirmed.
The state code pertaining to the duty of the County Commission to provide emergency ambulance services was then read by Moore. “That’s why we have to do something,” he added. The code continued to explain the special fees and ordinances and the authority and responsibilities given to the commissioners to abide by this state mandate. Moore reflected on the year of 1935 when Tucker County had a population of over 14,000, and 67 schools with 3,660 students. Currently the county has less than 7,000 residents and three schools with around 1,000 students and several acres were bought by the Federal Government for $1.50 per acre. “That takes away our tax revenue, it takes away our place to build, and we had a hospital here at that time,” he continued. Moore acknowledges the fee may be a hardship to some in the county, “But we have to provide it because we’re mandated to.”
In February, it was put in the paper that the Commission was going to address those who have not paid the fee, but due to the pandemic they felt it was better to postpone that effort. Exemption forms can be filled out for those who feel they are unable to pay the fee if certain criteria are met. Those who are refusing to pay the fee will be turned over to collection, the magistrates, or other necessary means.
Davis added to the conversation that at one of his first state meetings, he was informed that the Commission must ensure reliable ambulance service was made available in the county. “If not, it’s a liability on the county and me personally, they can come after us if we do not have an ambulance service in the county,” he said. The Commission has the ability to put members on the Ambulance Authority Board, but they are not in control of that entity.
He recalled recently when three major 911 calls came in within moments of each other, all of which were life threatening to the victims. “It’s hard, but I’ve got to say we had ambulance services provided to those three people,” he stated, though unfortunately one individual did not survive their injuries. Davis also explained that plans are in place to further better the EMS in the county, which more will be coming out in the near future.
Prior to moving on with the agenda, Moore closed this discussion by reiterating if this fee is removed from the county, the EMS will return to one crew covering the entire county. In occurrences like that of the three consecutive calls, only one will be answered by paramedics and the remaining calls will be responsible for self-care or transportation.
DeVilder began employee reports stating that the final stages of the brick restoration of the Courthouse have begun. Interim 911 Director Beverly Cantrell announced that the paging system went down Sunday evening and wasn’t restored until Tuesday evening. “Frontier advised us it was due to squirrels chewing and eating the cables,” she explained. Fortunately that issue is fixed and service has been restored. The road signs have been ordered and are awaiting arrival along with the equipment from Motorola. Cantrell has also taken her instructor course which allows her to train the new 911 employees.
A request from JNH Towing and Recovery LLC was received to include their company on the towing rotation. Though all of their documentation is in order, the commissioners are seeking additional information, particularly their location and how they will service the county, prior to approving the request. Moore motioned to table this request with Davis and Bush in favor.
Moore read a resolution to proclaim the week of September 20 through the 26 as Retired School Employee Week. These former school employees are typically in attendance, however due to the pandemic they were not. Regardless, the commissioners were happy to acknowledge and recognize these individuals. Bush stated, too, that he was impressed with the current teachers and staff for their dedication to return to the classroom and continuing to educate the students.
Erroneous assessments had already been reviewed by Prosecuting Attorney Ray LaMora which was approved by the commissioners as well. Payments were approved as presented followed by the commissioners offering their individual reports.
Moore thanked Davis for inviting the new management of Timberline Mountain to the last commission meeting, which he felt was very beneficial and educational.
Davis stated that the installation of the liner for the new cell at the landfill is underway and progress is being made at the facility. He is also working on setting up a potential job fair that would help employers and employees come together to fill job openings and assist those in need of jobs.
Bush announced that the board will be interviewing potential engineering firms to perform the sewage study to move forward on that project.
Simmons also mentioned that early voting will begin on October 21 and for anyone interested in an absentee ballot, they can contact the County Clerk’s Office for an application.
The next meeting of the Tucker County Commission will take place on Wednesday, September 23 at 4 p.m.