Grand County EMS Director Andy Smith. [Moab Sun News file photo]

A member of the Grand County Council is questioning the community’s need for a special district to run the area’s ambulance and emergency medical services, and wonders if the services should be provided under the county’s umbrella at all.

After months of preparation by both the Grand County Council and EMS officials for a special service district to manage Grand County Emergency Medical Services, Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells asked if that plan is the best way forward.

“Is there a way we can mitigate the issues without divorcing?” Wells asked EMS Director Andy Smith at a council meeting on Tuesday, April 17.

The issues, primarily lack of funding and priority from county officials, led Smith and an EMS study group to recommend breaking away from the county.

Wells expressed what he felt were possible drawbacks of a special service district, particularly the creation of yet another entity that could possibly impose taxes in the future, though there are no plans currently to do so.

“This has very serious consequences,” Wells said.

But Smith countered, “What’s the benefit of staying in the county?”

Last fall, the report from the EMS study group, in requesting the creation of a special EMS district, said the organization had been struggling for years with low funding, constant leadership turnover, increasing call volumes, increasing educational demands, lack of long-term planning and the loss of volunteer staff.

“Though in recent years, many proactive changes have been made, the department is still stuck in many ways,” the report stated.

EMS assessment

That report came about a year following a September 2016 report that offered an assessment of EMS. Among 10 “observations” reported in the study were those that formed much of the basis of the special service district proposal: the financial performance and efficiency of Grand County itself was difficult to track, EMS was not prioritized by county officials, the relationships between EMS and other departments or entities were strained and to summarize it all: “Grand County EMS is not sustainable as operating today.”

Wells referred to the 2016 assessment and said, “I think I’ve extracted the key points that led to the questions the council has relative to the creation of a special service district.”

Other council members remained largely silent throughout the discussion.

Wells described the drive to create the district as reactionary, and some of the concerns as a “loose end” that could be fixed.

“I think there’s a way to implement some long-term planning without a special service district,” Wells said.

Wells commiserated with EMS director Smith, and took prior councils to task for overlooking the needs of the department.

“With declining volunteerism … the demands have gone through the roof and people are spread thin,” Wells said. “It does frustrate me that this body has failed to react and better prioritize EMS.”

Planning and funding

Without EMS as a priority — or at best, a priority that gets diluted in importance because of being in the mix with so many other priorities the County Council must consider — long-term planning for the department can fall through the cracks.

That lack of attention from councils past led, in part, to the fragmentation of EMS in three different buildings that Smith last November called “out-of-date” and difficult to maintain. The effort to consolidate EMS into one building for better efficiency, in both cost and service, has been “in the works” for about a decade and a half, Smith said.

The council finally gave approval last fall to get an architect to design a proposed new EMS building that will likely cost upwards of $8 million.

Still, though, the concern over possible future taxes troubled Wells.

“The writing’s on the wall,” he said. The EMS budget, he said, is reported at being at just about $1 million, but when volunteer hours and efforts are factored in, “Your real budget is right around $2 million.”

EMS revenue comes from billable services (though its collection rate hovers near only 50 percent), from Transient Room Tax and from a new Health Care Sales Tax approved by Grand County voters in 2016.

“The community obviously spoke, and said the funding is a necessity,” Wells said, implying it was time for the County Council also to make EMS funding and planning a priority.

No different circumstance

Wells offered the Canyonlands Field Airport as an example of successful county oversight.

“It’s a very large operation,” he said, but what makes it work is a board with members who are “engaged” and who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about aviation. The implication was that creating such a board for EMS could have a similar effect.

Smith, however, said, “Even with all the improvements, I don’t think EMS would be in a very different circumstance.”

On Wednesday, Smith wrote in an email to the Moab Sun News, “It’s a matter of getting a governance structure in place that allows for longer-term planning, visioning and oversight. I personally believe that due to the complexities that the service has to manage, and the continued increase in demands for service (currently year to date we are up 30 percent) … this department [is] ideal for a special service district model of service with an engaged single-focused board.”

One of the likely members of that board, present at the April 17 meeting, took umbrage at what he took to be Wells’ dismissal of the work of concerned citizens in creating the special service district proposal.

Jason Taylor, who sat on the EMS study group and who had been approved by the council earlier in the meeting to be on the EMS Advisory Board, gave an impassioned defense.

“We spent two years going over this,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t something we took lightly. It wasn’t something we did to screw the county over.”

The county had its chance and lost it, Taylor said.

“We feel the county is losing grasp of this entity. You’re losing grasp of something you haven’t spent a lot of time grasping in the 10 years prior,” Taylor said.

And notwithstanding promises from current council members to do better, “What happens when you leave?” Taylor asked. “I understand you have concerns, but don’t take lightly what we put into this.”

Wells expressed his support and appreciation for the work of the study group and of EMS. But, he said, “Special service districts don’t have a stellar track record in Grand County.”

The County Council is scheduled to vote on the creation of the EMS district at its next meeting on Tuesday, May 1.

EMS director: ‘What’s the benefit of staying in the county?’

“It wasn’t something we took lightly. It wasn’t something we did to screw the county over.” – Jason Taylor