Meals tax to be on ballot – Paid EMS debated but not settled

By Nancy Lindsey
The Patrick County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Monday night to put a prepared meals tax referendum on the November ballot—the sixth attempt in the past decade.
Voting in favor of the motion were Mayo River District Supervisor Lock Boyce, Smith River District Supervisor Crystal Harris, Blue Ridge District Karl Weiss, and Peters Creek District Supervisor Rickie Fulcher.
Dan River District Supervisor Roger Hayden, board chairman, voted no.
Even though most of the discussion in the nearly five-hour meeting dealt with the proposal to implement a paid emergency medical services (EMS) system in the county, the board took only one action on EMS: agreeing to ask the rescue squads to make their own recommendations for solving the problems of volunteer shortages and unanswered emergency calls and present them at the July 11 meeting.
Discussion in the past has centered on using the meals tax, if successful, to help pay for the paid EMS system. However, even with the majority of the supervisors in favor of that outcome, the board did not succeed in linking the two aspects together in Monday’s board meeting.
The EMS discussion began with a public input session in which citizens favored the paid system.
Ralph Barnard, a member of the Vesta Rescue Squad, said the squad has been having a problem answering calls because of too few volunteers.
“I can’t run up and down steps with a stretcher like I used to,” Barnard said. “I think the county ought to take better care of me…We’ve got a great rescue squad but we need more people to man it.”
James Henningsen, also of the Blue Ridge District, said times have changed since people of his generation could willingly join rescue squads because they worked for companies that gave them time off to answer calls.
Now there are only a few companies providing employment on the mountain and most potential volunteers go down the mountain for jobs in Martinsville or other localities, Henningsen said. They don’t have the opportunity to leave work to serve as volunteers, he said.
Henningsen said he is planning to join the Meadows of Dan Volunteer Fire Department and offer his volunteer services. He said he thought it was time the county changed the EMS system and helped take care of older people. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” he said.
Crystal Webb, a member of the Vesta Rescue Squad, said every rescue squad in Patrick County needs help.
“People need to know that when they call 911 someone will come,” Webb said. “A dispatcher should not have to call a countywide tone 10 times. As a volunteer I signed up to be a volunteer; I did not sign up to be paid. I hope you can find a way to make something happen.”
Ronald Terry, a member of the Meadows of Dan Volunteer Fire Department, said he knew there has been talk of paying volunteers to make calls, but “it won’t work—not if there is no one there to answer calls. That’s not going to solve the problem.”
Terry said he had been a volunteer for 16 years, a member of the Meadows of Dan Ruritan Club for 25 years, and served with the school booster club and PTO through the years.
The Meadows of Dan and Vesta squads believe a paid EMS system is needed, Terry said, and “we’ve got to do something quickly.”
He said he thought the meals tax and soft billing (when three bills are sent to the patient but the fee is not collected if the patient is unable to pay) would cover the cost of the program.
Terry said he thought county residents would vote for the meals tax if they understood that it would be used for EMS. He advised the supervisors to “get out into the community and explain it, and it will pass.”
Terry said the Vesta Rescue Squad had offered to donate a surplus ambulance to the paid service.
Harris, who left her place on the board podium and sat in the witness stand, said she was speaking not as a supervisor but as captain of the Smith River Rescue Squad and as a citizen.
On a recent call she and three other members of the rescue squad (all in their 70s) responded to a newborn baby who was having trouble breathing, Harris said. (The mother and baby are doing fine.)
Harris said she has been running calls for 30 years and paid for her training herself. In emergency situations, she said, “it really gets scary when I’m the only one who answers.”
“I urge you to listen to what people are saying,” Harris said. “Please listen to what people need.”
“Something’s got to be done,” Fulcher said. “We can’t put it off. The population is aging, and we can’t keep delaying.”
Weiss said he had spent the last nine years trying to get some form of paid service in the county. The QRV (quick response vehicle, with trained EMS personnel) had just gotten started when he got on the board, but it “got shut down.”
“I hear you, I know it’s needed, and I know we can pay for it,” Weiss said. “What happens when you guys are gone?” he asked the aging squad members. “You’re going to end up without a rescue squad.”
Weiss said the 911 Committee voted unanimously to support a paid EMS system, and that should be all the evidence the board needs. “We shouldn’t go any further,” he said.
Weiss said he had spoken to the emergency management coordinator in Floyd County, who said that simply paying volunteers for calls would not work. “If you want to get paid, join our paid service,” Weiss said.
Boyce said Floyd’s EMS situation is “an unmitigated disaster” and has to depend on help from rescue squads in neighboring counties.
A paid service backing up Vesta would just be “two guys sitting there watching television and eating pizza,” Boyce said, because Vesta only averages three calls a week. Most of the squads have similarly scarce calls, he said, noting that he would prefer paying the volunteers per call, based on whether they are ALS (advanced life-saving) providers, BLS (basic life-saving) or drivers.
Boyce pointed out that J.E.B. Stuart Rescue Squad, where he serves on the board of directors, has about 25 calls a week.
The majority of calls are not life-threatening, such as heart attacks, Boyce said, and Vesta Rescue Squad might have to hire people to cover those calls.
The problem is not just Vesta, Terry said, it’s countywide.
As Terry and Boyce argued, Hayden banged his gavel and threatened to “clear the room” if the Terry interrupted Boyce again.
“Not without a vote,” Weiss said.
Boyce said the squads should make the decisions about hiring people or paying volunteers. “Give it to the squads,” he said. “I don’t want to give it to Steve (referring to Steve Allen, county emergency management coordinator).”
“Mr. Allen would replace the volunteer system in the county with a paid system,” Boyce said.
“Nobody is saying they want to replace the volunteers,” Terry said. “You don’t have any idea what we’ve tried to do to get volunteers.”
Hayden said there are already “two QRVs in Stuart,” referring to the responses of Allen and his assistant, Lemont Bryant,( who often fill in when squads don’t answer calls).
Hayden said he would like to get more input from the rescue squads not represented at the meeting Monday.
Jeanette Filipi, administrator of Pioneer Community Hospital of Patrick County, said the local hospital was not really affected by the Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization filed by its parent company, but had to make the filing also.
“We are a cash flow positive hospital, and for a critical access facility that’s good,” Filipi said. “We’re very viable. Chapter 11 could end up doing positive things for us.”
Pioneer Community Hospital of Stokes County in Danbury, N.C., is “having a much harder time,” with beds closing and the county considering taking over, she said.
Filipi urged county residents to continue to use the local hospital and support its programs, which include new services and specialists.
“I have my ear to the ground,” Harris said. “I know you care about what happens to our hospital.”
In response to a question from Boyce, Filipi said the recent hospital renovation cost “just under $5 million.”
“We’ve got a great hospital,” Boyce said, “from the standpoint of staffing and patient care.”
The supervisors, as usual, jumped from topic to topic, but returned to the vote on the meals tax after a recess.
Weiss said the referendum should be done by district, not countywide, because it passed last year in two districts: his own, Blue Ridge, and Peters Creek. If it passes again in his district, Weiss said, the resulting funds should come to his district.
Boyce said about 90% of the meals tax revenue in the county would come from Primland Resort, which is in the Blue Ridge District.
“If a district doesn’t vote it in, it shouldn’t get it,” Weiss said.
County Attorney Alan Black said he had not contacted the Attorney General’s Office, but “talked to some people” about the legality of voting by district and was told it would be an administrative disaster.

The refere

Ralph Barnard was among the speakers on the topic of a paid EMS system at the board meeting Monday night.
Ralph Barnard was among the speakers on the topic of a paid EMS system at the board meeting Monday night.

ndum could not have the language designating it by district, Black said, and this board could not bind a future board to spending the revenues in a certain way.
Boyce, who supports the meals tax but not a paid EMS system, said the majority of the rest of the county (besides the Blue Ridge, Peters Creek and possibly Mayo River districts) already pay meals taxes if they eat in restaurants in the town of Stuart or adjoining localities. The town makes about $250,000 a year from the restaurant meals tax, Boyce said.
County Administrator Tom Rose said one of the pros of the tax, if passed, would be bringing in the equivalent of two cents on the real estate tax levy. A con would be “an administrative burden” to the treasurer’s office, he said.
The meals tax would “give us something to use as a tool,” Boyce said. “We could explain to people that we can’t put it in writing that it goes to EMS and can’t pass a law telling future boards how to spend money.”
“If ya’ll pass the meals tax I’ll go along with the EMS,” Hayden said.
Boyce made the first motion that the tax be put on the ballot. Weiss interjected that it be voted on by district.
Fulcher said he understood Weiss’s intent but that he felt the board has a moral obligation to include allocations to help the rescue squads in districts where the referendum might not pass.
“if all board members support it, pass it countywide,” Terry said.
The district amendment failed with no votes from Fulcher, Boyce and Hayden. The motion to place the question on the ballot, countywide, passed 4 to 1.
Fulcher said he was in support of some kind of paid EMS service. He suggested forming a committee composed of one EMS representative from each rescue squad, Steve Allen, an administrative person, and a board member, with the committee bringing back recommendations in July.
“I beg you to give these guys some time to think of solutions rather than setting up a countywide solution,” Boyce said.
Hayden reminded the board that he set up a task force about a year ago with representatives of each rescue squad, and the chairman presented a plan to give stipends to volunteers, but that was never activated.
Harris asked Crystal Webb, who was a member of that task force, why she resigned.
“I resigned because I felt the president of the task force had his own personal agenda,” Webb said. “I was not going to be part of what was coming to the board of supervisors when he had an agenda against certain people.”
“The real issue is not what each squad needs, it’s what the citizens need—the people of the county as a whole,” Terry said.
Weiss asked if the board could lower the tax rate, suggesting that he might push that action if the paid EMS fails.
Black said the board had already had a public hearing and voted on the tax rate. (In addition, the real estate tax statements have already been mailed, and probably many already paid.)
The motion failed, with Weiss and Harris voting for it and the rest of the board against it.
“I feel like we drove out to the middle of a cornfield, got stuck in the mud, and are still spinning our wheels,” Fulcher said.

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