By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
A potential financial crisis facing Pulaski County government appears to have been averted thanks to a preliminary agreement regarding emergency funding services being reached with the City of Somerset.
According to a statement released from Pulaski County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock’s office, the two local governments have reached an accord on the Emergency Medical Services System (EMS) contract that would help solve a problematic funding shortfall facing the city.
The agreement comes just in time, since the Somerset City Council opted last month for a March 1 deadline for Pulaski County to put up the necessary funds before pursuing other, potentially more drastic solutions.
“Any time the city and the county can work together to accomplish things for everybody, I think it’s great,” said Bullock. “That’s the way we have to operate. We have to operate jointly for the better of everybody.”
One key part of the agreement is a restructuring of the occupational tax from which the county receives significant revenue. The threat to the county was Somerset taking a massive chunk of that revenue in order to help fund EMS.
The city was seeing a loss of around $970,000 for EMS by the close of the 2011-12 fiscal year thanks to changes in Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance coverage, based on recent comments by Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler.
It’s that restructuring of how the occupational tax revenue is distributed that provides perhaps the linchpin upon which the agreement is built.
Specific details on the occupational tax breakdown weren’t released yet by either Bullock or Girdler’s offices. Girdler expects to present the plan to the Somerset City Council for their consideration later this week, and that the city’s willingness to move forward was based on the occupational tax reorganization.
“Without complete restructuring of the occupational tax, I wouldn’t want to say that the problem is solved, because it isn’t,” said Girdler, “... not unless the whole package comes together.”
Bullock stressed that the occupational tax rate won’t be changing for anyone in the county, and that this is being done with no cost to taxpayers, businesses or workers. The biggest changes will be seen by government officials themselves.
“We’re going to look at redoing that the give the city a little bit more (money) to do things like operate the EMS service, which is essential services that we have to have for everyone in the county,” said Bullock. “I think their (EMS) budget is about maybe a little over $4 million annually. The last couple years, they’ve come up with a shortfall. ... We can’t cut that service, so we’ve got to look at some different funding methods to make sure that service is kept up.”
The city council passed a resolution in January advancing EMS $1.3 million to help that problem. Girdler said that as part of the agreement, a figure of about $1 million will be refunded to the city to help eat that cost.
“We dealt first of all with the issue of how much money (the county) owed us from the 1995 agreement,” said Girdler. “Even though we think it’s way beyond that, we’re thinking we’ll ask for about a million dollars. ... That’s only what they owe us now, not the future.
“The (previous) contract said that any revenue shortfall we experience will be dealt with through the occupational tax or through the fiscal court,” he added. “So currently, that shortfall is more than a million dollars, but they’ve agreed that the amount owed under the contract is valid, and we’re willing to adjust that somewhat to approximately $1 million.”
Girdler said his focus right now is being reimbursed by the county, and “once that is settled ... then the other part of that is how we go forward, because that will only cover the current shortfall.” Girdler said it’s a serious problem, more for the county than the city because Somerset has no jurisdiction outside city limits.
The details of how future costs will be addressed will be released following review by the city council, according to the mayor.
“There is a plan to move us forward that’s been generally agreed to at our meeting (with the county) which I’m very comfortable with, but whether or not the county’s going to accept it (remains to be determined),” said Girdler. “I assume they did at the committee meeting, but of course, all this has to go back to the fiscal court and the city council.”
Girdler said that part of the discussions between the municipalities held last week with the fiscal court, city council, and county and city attorneys, was “the level of service” which they wanted to provide EMS services. That included the advanced life support, or paramedic program, rather than using basic EMT personnel and not paramedics.
“Everybody agreed they wanted the advanced life support system, because of the number of elderly out in the county and the number of runs we have,” said Girdler.
The mayor also said that the county asked if they were interested in alternative solutions, including taking over responsibility for EMS from the city.
“We did offer to the county, ‘If it’s something you all feel that you want to do, you’re more than welcome to operate EMS. We have a great paramedic program, haven’t had a deficiency in eight years; it’s one of the top-ranked EMS services in the country,’” said Girdler. “... We’d work with them any way possible to accommodate that transfer. We’d do it sooner, later, in 30 days, 60 days, whatever they wanted.”
Girdler said that the county’s “consensus was that they’d prefer the city to operate” EMS services, however.
And if the other points regarding occupational tax reorganization fall through, “then in all probability, the city will not be operating EMS,” said Girdler. “We just can’t legally do that.”
Girdler added that a joint resolution will be proposed between the city and county next week relative to the agreement.
Earlier last month, Girdler had met with Barty Bullock about the city possibly claiming its own portion of the occupational tax — which funds a significant portion of the county’s budget — in order to solve the shortfall. However, Girdler said that option wouldn’t come into play until some time in the future, and he had stated to the Commonwealth Journal that funding EMS and avoiding service interruption would be the city’s first priority.
Although only estimates exist as to what portion of the occupational tax would go to the city, numbers have been put at 55 percent to 65 percent of the pie — and that would depend on which employers are located in the city limits.
County officials have even said it could be as high as 75 percent; Pulaski County Treasurer Joan Isaacs said that operating without its full occupational revenue, which makes up 20 percent of that entity’s budget, “would cripple us.”
The statement released Tuesday called the preliminary agreement “a cornerstone for future growth, providing essential services to all citizens today and in the future, and complete(s) the contract arrangement that was made in 1995,” and that it’s the “first comprehensive effort in over 20 years that will make local government more efficient, less confusing, create more jobs, and provide quality services ... that are expected by every person in Pulaski County (and) Somerset.”