Wright County EMS special election is Tuesday

‘When you call 911, you want someone to be there’

CLARION — Voters will head to the polls in Wright County on Tuesday to decide whether or not to support a tax levy that will fund emergency medical services within the county.

Polls for the special election will open at noon and close at 8 p.m. Polling places are the same as general and primary elections.

A majority of the vote is needed for the levy to pass.

If approved, residents would pay about 67.8 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

According to Jim Lester, Wright County emergency management coordinator, the overall cost of the plan is $586,652.

The levy would be in place for five years.

Right now, EMS is funded by the general fund of each town in the county.

Ambulance services in Wright County are experiencing a combined loss of nearly $500,000, Lester reported.

In August 2017, the Wright County Supervisors declared EMS an essential service.

But declining volunteerism, decreased reimbursements, increased operational costs and overall system losses have contributed to the need for increased funding, according to Lester. He is chairperson of the EMS System Advisory Council.

The Advisory Council recommended that the Board of Supervisors establish agreements with Iowa Specialty Hospital, in Clarion, to provide for a county EMS coordinator, a county medical director and a paramedic tier response vehicle based at the facility.

Lester said an anticipated increase in population is only part of the reason why this issue has emerged.

“We have been talking about this basically since about 2015 and several of the entities have talked about the EMS issue five to 10 years before that,” Lester said. “With Prestage, while it will be important to have a strong EMS system, it wasn’t driven by their announcement. We had already had meetings prior to that announcement.”

Karl Helgevold, Wright County supervisor, said the county took a hit when the city of Dows discontinued its ambulance service.

In 2016, the city of Dows notified surrounding services that it would no longer be providing ambulance service, mainly due to lack of qualified staffing.

“Since I have been on the board, there’s has always been discussion that what we have is not really working,” Helgevold said. “With Dows, we need to deal with it before we have a crisis. With Dows dropping out, we needed to figure out something. I’d rather deal with it now.”

Helgevold said the primary reasons for having the vote are “continuity and service.”

“Even though all the ambulance services will be independent, I think having one medical director, standard procedures and protocols, the ability to buy medicine in bulk,” he said, “it just makes everything more standard and more efficient.”

Lester added, “It will allow the services that are seeing losses to have additional funding available for their training as well as to add additional staff to cover their calls to make sure we continue to have EMS available to us.”

Both Helgevold and Lester see the need to have one medical director for the county.

“Right now, with two medical directors, staff from one town may not be able to help staff from another town,” Helgevold said. “Not that they are required to do that, but it would be a nice asset to have with one medical director, so if you were in Clarion and wanted to go to Eagle Grove to help out, you could do that. That availability would be there.”

Lester added, “One standard system would allow staff to be shared between the services. That won’t be required. The services will have with this levy, with this funding, the ability to provide more training.”

Ambulance services in Wright County log about 1,100 calls per year.

Wright County is unique because some of its police officers are also EMTs, although it’s not required.

“Several of them are also EMTs,” Lester said. “Not all of them. It used to be a requirement.”

Lester said he doesn’t like the term volunteers to describe EMTs.

“Anymore, I’m not sure volunteer is the proper term,” he said. “I think we’ve gone away from that. These are paid on-call systems rather than a crew volunteer. All of the people doing this are compensated minimally, but are compensated when they are on call.”

Lester said service is being provided in rural areas, although it’s not really being paid for.

“The bottom line is, technically, no one is paying for this service now,” Lester said. “Granted some of the cities, Eagle Grove and Clarion, who operate the ambulance service in those two towns, it’s funded through their tax dollars. But it’s funded through their general fund. They are not specifically collecting money for EMS or funds for EMS to continue to fund that. The folks in the rural areas are not being taxed specifically for EMS. The services agree to go out to rural areas to answer those 911 calls.”

Helgevold said the county has allowed about $50,000 a year for ambulance calls in rural areas.

“At the end of the day, no one likes to pay more taxes and I think the supervisors looked at this thing and we saw something that needs fixed,” Helgevold said. “When you call 911, you want someone to be there.”