A pubic hearing was held for the Litchfield Ambulance Special Service Area on Thursday, Sept. 16, at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the proposed increase in the special service area’s tax levy. The current maximum allowable rate is 15 cents per $100 of valuation, which would be increased to a maximum allowable rate of 45 cents per $100 of valuation.
Robert Buda, who is on the committee for the ambulance service area, introduced Jereme Zook of the Kerber, Eck and Braeckel accounting firm to speak about the reason for the increase. Zook said that having trained ambulance personnel at both fire stations is costly to the city and the ambulance district, with an overall cost of 1,050,000 annually.
Revenue received by the district through patient fees (public and private) account for half of that cost, with the tax levy making up another 17 percent ($150,000) of those expenses. Zook said the rest of the cost is funded by the City of Litchfield’s general sales tax, which has caused a $300,000 budget shortfall.
Zook said if the levy is not increased, the city will either have to make adjustments to the general fund or adjust the services it provides.
Buda asked if there were any questions for Zook, with Litchfield resident John Hannifan asking if there was a breakdown of expenses provided by the city? Zook said there was in the city’s budget. Hannifan also asked what percentage of the expenses were labor costs. Zook said that approximately 80 percent of the costs were due to labor and pension costs.
Hannifan then stated that Zook didn’t want to speak about labor and said that many small communities consider volunteer ambulance services, before Buda asked him to wait until the public participation part of the hearing.
Before Hannifan returned to the microphone, Walshville Village President Joy McDonald spoke about her opposition to the increase. She said the majority of the people in her village already need assistance to just get by and the tax levy should not be tripled because it would just add more hardship. Hannifan returned and started by saying that the smartest thing that Litchfield could have done was drop out of the county’s ambulance billing program, which he called at best a bad joke.
He then said that labor is always an issue with ambulance districts and that their 26 ways to organize ambulance services with 52 permutations, with no “one way fits all” option.
Hannifan said that Litchfield’s ambulance service is expensive due in part to the dual roles they play as firefighter and paramedic and asked if anyone had looked at breaking the ambulance and fire department apart.
He cited the cost of training and the time it takes to keep proficient in both, questioning whether it was possible for the staff members to maintain the level of care needed.
Hannifan stated that the population of Litchfield has gone down and said that it would be nice to know the disposition of calls, such as how many are patient refusals. He also spoke about equipment requirement changes adding to cost and questioned how the Federal Fair Labor Act fit in and if the city could lower labor costs that way.
Hannifan added that the city has not explained to stakeholders the Litchfield Ambulance Service’s proficiency, response time or performance review, before Buda asked suggested that he present his comments in writing to the committee. In closing, Hannifan struck the podium and showed the committee a copy of Management of Ambulance Services, which he said he purchased on Amazon for $35, but doubted that anyone in the room had read.
Mayor Steve Dougherty spoke after Hannifan and noted that the ambulance district levy had not been increased since 1985. He also addressed Hannifan’s concern regarding lack of training, saying that the department trains every day and he is thankful for the training they do.
Mayor Dougherty said one of the problems is that Medicare does not cover what it should and that the city had considered closing one of its two stations, but did not believe that was the right idea for the businesses on the west side of town.
He said that the city continues to research options, but has not been able to find a more feasible idea than raising the tax levy. Mayor Dougherty also noted that Litchfield property taxes haven’t been increased in nine years.
McDonald spoke again after Dougherty, adding that she greatly appreciates the Litchfield Fire and Ambulance departments, but just wanted people to know that an increase in taxes would be hard on people from Walshville.
Litchfield Fire Chief Joe Holomy was the last to speak and started by breaking down what the special service area is facing financially. Chief Holomy said that between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, the department served 1,283 patients, 80 percent of which were on Medicaid. Those patients were billed just over $697,000, with Medicaid cutting $245,000 off the top at the start.
Holomy said that Medicaid pays $680 per call, regardless of the cost, which is on average $1,100. He said that the city has received $37,000 from the GEMT program (Ground Emergency Medical Transportation), but that does not make up the difference and Medicare and Medicaid haven’t been adjusted for 20 years.
Holomy said that the department’s financial concerns don’t affect his staff’s performance and that the guys just go out and do their job, which also includes transfers and helping other ambulance special service areas. He added that St. Francis Hospital also used to send nurses on transfers, but cut that for budget reasons, meaning that each ambulance now has two staff members on-board instead of just one.
Holomy closed by saying that the city will have to decide what it can afford to continue doing if the levy increase is not approved. The meeting adjourned at 5:59 p.m.
According to information provided by Montgomery County Clerk Sandy Leitheiser, an objection petition must be signed by at least 51 percent of the electors residing within the special service area and at least 51 percent of the owners of record of the land included in the boundaries of that area and filed with the county clerk within 60 days following the final adjournment of the public hearing to contest the increase in the tax levy maximum.