By NATHAN GREGORY
The city of Starkville may still be eligible for a Emergency Medical Services Operating Fund grant despite reports earlier this month that the opportunity would not be available.
On Jan. 3, it was announced at a Starkville Board of Aldermen meeting that a grant annually accepted and used by the city to fund OCH Regional Medical Center’s ambulance service was not received due to failure of a city representative’s participation in a course required to be considered for approval.
The board responded by canceling the remaining three $10,000 payments the city typically issues to OCH for the fiscal year despite not assuming the grant money would be received when it budgeted $40,000 for emergency medical services for the 2013 fiscal year. Mayor Parker Wiseman noted that OCH budgeted operating on a $397,000 loss for the service and removing the remaining $30,000 of the city’s commitment would worsen the loss. The city previously cooperated with Oktibbeha County and Mississippi State University to commit funds to OCH each fiscal year for the services.
Wiseman said in a conversation with an EMSOF grant administrator Tuesday he learned the city is still eligible for the $14,194 grant. OCH Chief Financial Officer Susan Russell’s attendance at the course on behalf of the county could also be used to count for the city.
The city’s budget and audit committee, consisting of Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill, Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker and Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins, met with OCH Chief Administrative Officer Richard Hilton, Russell and OCH Ambulance Services Director Michael Hunt Wednesday and said they would pursue the grant and provide it to OCH if the city is approved. The grant requires a 15-cents-per-capita match — approximately $3,500 — but the $10,000 already committed by the city to OCH can count toward the match.
Hilton was initially scheduled to appear before the board of aldermen Tuesday night, but Wiseman said he thought it would be more appropriate for him to speak to the budget and audit committee since it made the recommendation to the board of aldermen to suspend ambulance service payments.
The committee promised no funding in addition to the grant, meaning the combined $24,194 it would commit to OCH if the grant is accepted would still fall short of the original $40,000 by nearly 39 percent.
Hilton submitted a letter containing statistics and facts on OCH’s ambulance services to the committee. One of the statistics showed that 68 percent of its ambulance runs occur within city limits.
Sistrunk noted that is roughly the same percentage of county millage that comes from the city.
“When the county gives you $200,000, probably $135(,000) or $140(,000) came from city residents, so let’s not lose sight of (the fact that this) is certainly one way … our own taxing authority supports the ambulance service,” she said. “We also support the hospital financially through the general obligation bonds and the 5.5 mills that were rolled on to handle debt services for the renovations (OCH) went through recently. So financially, the city supports the hospital quite heavily.”
Hilton contended the bond issue is a capital expenditure and is limited to how it can be applied versus EMS services, which are operational expenditures.
“No portion of the capital expenditure for the bond can be applied toward the operation of the EMS service,” Hilton said.
Hunt brought up OCH’s past consideration of private ambulance service as an option.
“You can talk to any county administrator or city and ask them if they’re happy with it. The majority of them will tell you, ‘No,’” Hunt said. “(Oktibbeha County Administrator Don) Posey and the board of supervisors said, ‘We want to keep the ambulance service local because we don’t want these issues.’ I just challenge (you all) to talk to other counties and other cities. We’re fortunate to have a county ambulance service that is operated by the county and not a private ambulance service … (and) our charges are actually less than anybody at the state at this point.”
Sistrunk noted the city’s lean operating budget as a result of low taxpayer funding.
“Henderson Street … is almost impassible. Do we fix the street or do we give the hospital an additional $20,000 for an ambulance service? Those are questions we’ve got to weigh. If money were no object, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We do have limited funds, and if we make a decision to give one group money, that means there’s something else that goes unfunded,” she said. “We recognize that you do good work … We appreciate and value it, and I think we support it financially and in other ways. We’re happy to try help you … do whatever it is to make sure you continue to get that grant money. I think it’s a much harder ask to continue to fund at the levels that we have given some of the issues that face us.”
Hilton said there are measures OCH can exercise to ensure EMS services break even each year as opposed to operating at a six-figure loss.
“We can achieve that by cutting back to the bare minimum of standards for staffing the ambulance operation. That’s a hard choice to make. Our trustees are committed toward not trying to put a dollar on the value of life; for us to do as best we can,” Hilton said. “That’s the reason why they’re willing to at this point if that means subsidizing from the hospital’s operation, they’re living up to that. I just felt like this 30-year-plus tradition of how this got established and came together. I felt like part of it got broken off with (the board’s) decision.”
“Like most things in life, I don’t know that we will ever be able to get back to the way things have always been,” Sistrunk replied. “We might someday, so I wouldn’t take that off the table. I think right now the very best middle-of-the-road solution is to pursue the grant and go forward from there. There’s another budget year next year and we can revisit (the issue) then.”