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BENTON COUNTY -- Two area hospitals are interested in providing rural ambulance service to western Benton County.

Both Mercy Emergency Medical Services and Northwest Health System responded to a request for an ambulance service provider for the area now covered by Siloam Springs and Gravette. Those cities told the county they're interested in continuing the arrangement, but not in expanding their areas of service.

Rural ambulance service

Benton County has budgeted about $1.5 million to pay for rural ambulance service in 2018. The county expects to receive about $931,000 this year from a 0.2 mill dedicated property tax approved by voters for ambulance service. Another $317,000 is expected from the voluntary millage. The remainder of the cost, about $262,000, will come from the general fund revenue.

Source: Staff report

County Judge Barry Moehring said June 29 he has completed preliminary conversations with Mercy and Northwest, which included the mayors of Decatur and Gentry since those two cities may also be covered by a new agreement.

The next step is for county officials to review the proposals and information garnered in the interviews. Moehring said the county wants to decide this summer so all of the parties involved can plan and budget accordingly. The county's budget preparation process begins in August.

"We'll have these two sets of interviews and assess what we've learned," Moehring said.

Moehring said the county is trying to lower its cost. The county has budgeted about $1.5 million in 2018 for rural ambulance service. That's down from about $1.8 million budgeted in 2017. The savings were made possible by an agreement with Mercy to provide ambulance service to two areas in eastern Benton County, including the area previously served by the Rogers Fire Department at a cost of about $352,000. With the larger service area having a higher call volume, Mercy was able to reduce its overall costs, according to the county.

Moehring said there have been no problems with the quality of service on the west side of the county.

"There are two variables here with those services. One, they have to base within their city limits and, two, city residents are their top priority. That's understandable and that's how it should be," he said.

The two proposals given to the county outline how ambulance service would be provided, with Northwest estimating its cost at $400,000. Mercy said its cost could vary depending on negotiating "strategic partnerships" with providers and offered no estimate. For 2018, the county is paying Siloam Springs about $429,000 and Gravette about $194,000.

Joel Jones, justice of the peace for District 6 and chairman of the Quorum Court's Public Safety Committee, said he wants to see a detailed budget from Northwest or from Mercy before the county enters into an agreement.

Tom Allen, justice of the peace for District 4 and chairman of the Finance Committee, said he's inclined to let Moehring negotiate with the other parties and bring his recommendation to the Quorum Court for discussion. Allen said he's confident either Mercy or Northwest can provide the level of service needed at a reasonable cost.

"They're also both stakeholders in the community, and I think they're both interested in doing the right thing," he said.

Chief Jeremey Criner of the Siloam Springs Fire Department said it costs his department more to operate one ambulance than the city receives from the county, so a change in providers for the rural area wouldn't greatly impact his department.

For Gravette, the situation is different. If the county were to shift to a single-provider model on the west side, the loss of the county subsidy would force the Gravette Fire Department to make some budget cuts, including personnel, which would diminish the department's ability to provide ambulance service and to assist other agencies if needed, according to Fire Chief Lonnie Mullen.

Mullen said his department operates with himself and six full-time firefighter/paramedics, which allows the department to operate one ambulance, and uses 12 part-time firefighter/paramedics to have a second ambulance operating Monday through Friday during times when volunteer staffing is minimal. The loss of revenue would likely force him to cut his part-time staff.

"That becomes a public safety issue," he said.

Mullen said he will begin work on his department's budget in July, but with the county contract unresolved, he will prepare multiple budgets covering different outcomes.

"We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode right now," he said.

Kevin Johnston, Gentry's mayor, said there will be more meetings but he thought the negotiations could result in major cost savings to the city by 2021 and also have an ambulance in Gentry.

General News on 07/11/2018

Print Headline: Benton County eyes ambulance service changes

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