06/15/04 — Duplin County manager defends proposed budget

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Duplin County manager defends proposed budget

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on June 15, 2004 1:58 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County manager released a statement Monday defending his budget proposal, which calls for a tax increase and an annual fee to pay for emergency medical services.

County Manager Fred Eldridge says people are confused about what he recommended and said there is a need for the county to move to a paid staff for emergency response.

The proposed budget calls for a tax increase of 3.5 cents per $100 of property valuation. It also includes a $120 annual fee to be paid by households, businesses and farms so the county can pay for full-time countywide emergency medical services. He calls it an "availability fee."

But the county does not have the authority to impose the fee, he said. The county commissioners have passed a resolution asking the state General Assembly to pass a bill that would allow the county to impose the fee, if the commissioners deem it to be appropriate.

Eldridge said an alternative to the fee would be to increase property taxes to cover the costs. The increase would be about 75 cents, he said. The current tax rate is 74.5 cents.

He said the county's statutory requirement to provide emergency medical services, or EMS, throughout the county is the largest dollar item in the budget and appears to be the primary area of confusion

"For years, the citizens of Duplin County were fortunate to have an outstanding EMS program staffed nearly 100 percent by volunteers," he said. "The volunteers provided the skilled care; the county provided most of the vehicles and supplies; and the citizens of Duplin County reaped the benefits of a fantastic EMS program at very little cost."

Over the past years, he said, a number of issues have affected the availability of volunteers.

In 1994, the county began placing paid EMS staff at locations within the county to provide service from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. The volunteers continued to provide service during the evenings and on weekends and holidays.

"This approach only treated the symptoms of an even larger problem," he said. "There was a continuing reduction in the number of EMS volunteers. State certification requirements became more stringent and meant more time was needed for training. Employers were, and are, downsizing and unable to allow volunteers the flexibility to leave work in response to their call for service."

As a result of these pressures, two volunteer squads, Warsaw and Kenansville, have closed their doors. The Wallace Volunteer EMS has given the county notice that, effective July 31, it will no longer be able to provide first-responder service. In addition, several of the other six volunteer EMS squads have told him they are barely hanging on, he said.

The county has met with the EMS squad captains and formed a committee with representatives from all active squads, the Duplin County Municipal Association, Kenansville, Warsaw, and two individuals selected at-large.

The group recommended that the county create a 24-hour, paramedic-level EMS program with a paid staff. It was recommended that there be eight stations located within the county to enable response times of 8 to 10 minutes.

Paramedic service would cost nearly $2.8 million a year, he said. The committee recommended, and Eldridge agreed, to impose the fee to help pay for it.

But he said there are two alternative levels of EMS care -- intermediate level and the basic level. The county is currently providing service at the basic level.

The major difference in these three levels is the type of care provided. Eldridge said there would be an annual savings in the cost of labor of about $32,000 to provide intermediate care rather than paramedic care.

The public will be able to comment during a second public hearing on the budget, set for 6:30 p.m. on June 21 at the Faison Fire and Rescue Building.

"Your ideas concerning the level of care to be provided and your constructive suggestions will be more than welcome," Eldridge said in the release.