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By KEVIN KOELLING
TELL CITY – Discussion became slightly heated last Thursday as members of the county council debated whether to approve up to $20,000 for improvements to the county garage to accommodate ambulance crews.
In the end, they did vote 6-1 to approve the funding, with Councilman Chet Mathena casting the lone nay vote.
As the News reported Jan. 13, the county commissioners voted at a Dec. 30 meeting to set aside up to $20,000 from the county’s economic-development income-tax fund to support the goal. When the garage was built in 2000, its design reflected the additional purpose, but interior walls and other construction for sleeping, lounge, laundry and kitchen accommodations went undone.
Volunteers who have said they’ll provide the bulk of the project’s labor would like to get started during the winter weather, Commissioner Randy Kleaving told the council.
Renovations had encroached on the commissioners room where the meeting occurred. The most obvious evidence was a large chandelier that had been moved from the courthouse lobby to divide and limit audience seating. Some of the approximately 45 attendees stood along walls that had been stripped, revealing drywall. Ceiling tiles were absent overhead, exposing noisy pipes.
An ambulance was staged at the garage during recent inclement weather, and Forest Service workers moved to the site and a helicopter was staged there during a recent summer drought, he said. An important role the building has and could serve is to provide a site where workers can take breaks during multi-day rescue operations.
The site would be ideal if a disaster struck Tell City, he continued. Offices now housed in the county courthouse or Tell City Police Department, which handles dispatch services for all county rescue agencies, could move there because “it is set up for that right now,” he explained.
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can as commissioners to work to see how we can fund this, besides asking the taxpayers right now,” he said. “But when it comes down to it, we’re going to have to work together, all of us.”
Included in those efforts will be discussions with elected officials to “see how they can help with this, before we have to come back to the county taxpayers,” Kleaving said. He noted that a recent redistricting of council districts became necessary after the 2010 census showed a shift in population into northern areas of the county.
“We’re not keeping up” with services to families living there, he said, and with the numbers of ambulance runs being experienced, including transfers to other hospitals, “sometimes we’re left without an ambulance, and that’s a serious situation.”
The News quoted Kleaving in the Jan. 13 story as saying, “it could be this year,” he said. He explained at the council meeting he meant if funds can be identified through the state or other sources, they can be included when budget planning for 2015 begins in September.
The $20,000 was to come from economic-development income-tax revenues collected in 2011, he noted.
“It was extra EDIT money that got put back for some kind of projects in the county for economic-development,” the commissioner said. “We felt like this would be really good to grow the community, grow the county.”
He also noted the money was only a portion of what’s available in the EDIT fund.
Councilman Jim Adams thanked “whoever it was that two weeks ago thought enough ahead to put the ambulance out there” when inclement weather was forecast, because it served the best interests of county residents. “I thought that was very commendable.” He also appreciated the forethought that incorporated an ambulance station into the garage plans, he said, calling its construction a first phase. “Phase 2 is what we’re looking at right now, to put these rooms in there and to stand up to a commitment that was made 13 years ago. I think it’s high time we did it. I commend the commissioners for taking a look at this and being adamant about putting it in here and in going at this at the right pace. This is what we have to do now in order to move forward.”
“Speaking for myself, I’m for this 100 percent,” he added.
Kleaving thanked rescue workers in the audience who attended the meeting to show their support. “The way I feel, I’m not a leader,” he said. “These guys are leaders here in the community.”
“I would like to see the commissioners work more closely with the council on something like this,” said Stan Goffinet, who earlier in the meeting had been elected council president. “I am trying to watch the county’s budget – we all are. I would like to see a plan … what you’re seeing in your mind … a timeline … a projection of dollars, and not just go into this thing and say, ‘well, it’s a done deal.’ ”
As little work is necessary to prepare the building, a larger cost will come in staffing the station.
Goffinet agreed the north ambulance station is desirable but asked, “is it going to be too costly for the county?”
“If we’re going to fund it, we need to fund it from here on out,” Kleaving replied. The costs of ongoing operations had varied previously, he said, but “we’ve got some hard numbers right now” which can be incorporated into various options and the commissioners can get back with the council later, “but we wanted to step back and start some kind of a project and work toward that goal … for somewhere out in the future to get this in.”
Goffinet asked if the effort would eliminate the ambulance station at the Perry County Memorial Hospital.
“No, that’s not our ultimate goal,” Kleaving answered. “That’s an option … we want to do what’s right for Perry County. If it’s right for the hospital to manage it, that’s what we’ll do. If we think it’s right – and you’ll know that before – if we’re going to take it over ourselves, it’ll be right for the county.”
A lot of research must be done before final decisions can be made, he continued, saying, “we thought we could get started with baby steps, and this is a baby step. Give us two or three months, and we might know a whole lot more.”
Goffinet said he’d like to see a plan, including a time line, with cost projections.
“This particular issue exemplifies the fact that we do need a comprehensive plan,” Adams said. County officials have mentioned several times in recent years a need to update an existing plan that was last revised in 1993. The cost is a barrier, however. Tell City officials secured a $49,500 grant to prepare such a plan, the News reported in November 2011.
“Had we had a comprehensive plan,” Adams continued, “we wouldn’t be sitting in here having this discussion now. This would’ve already been acted on.”
Councilwoman Jody French said she’s “not against any of this,” but asked, “why do we want to put money into a building if we don’t know if we can even afford it?”
She appreciated learning about other uses for the building, however, saying, “that makes it a little bit easier, (knowing) it’s going to be used,” not just an empty facility that might be used at some point.
“We’re going to need your help,” Kleaving told the council, “so if you guys want to start working on any kind of different funding … we’ve got to look outside the box on this one.”
Commissioner Tom Hauser stepped to the podium. “As Randy said, it’s not just the ambulance being put out there,” he said. “It’s all the other uses, and it’s a step forward for improving public services, which is very important to economic development.”
In conferences and other meetings he attends, he continued, quality of life is being discussed as being “a big tool for economic development, and this is something that we can afford and … we’re not even using a fourth of the excess economic-development money.”
Goffinet said the $20,000 “isn’t a whole lot of money, but it looks like it’s a prelude to something else that will be coming down the pike, and if we pass this ….”
“The other still has to be passed,” Hauser said, finishing the thought, referring to operational costs that would follow the building improvements. “It is worth it for the other uses. This is not a waste of money. If we never get an ambulance out there, it’s not a waste of money. It’s well-spent money even if we can’t get all these details worked out.”
“I don’t believe any of us are against this,” Goffinet said, adding he wanted to caution against “giving anyone false hope it’s going to go out there, because we’re broke.”
Although the commissioners didn’t yet “have all our ducks in a row,” Hauser said, “I truly believe like Randy does that we have a plan that will work. But we don’t have everything in line.”
They had just received cost estimates from the hospital, he said. “We’re really not ready to present all of that tonight and I don’t think we have time to discuss that. We should get that information to you all to let you digest it well before (discussing it).”
Adams offered a motion to approve the $20,000 additional appropriation.
Councilman Ron Crawford Sr. called the News’ Jan. 13 report a “bombshell.”
You say you’ve been working on it for years,” he told Kleaving. “It was the first I heard of it. The thing that bothered me about it was it’s going to cost the county some money, but we don’t know what. We have one job as a council, to be fiscally responsible.”
He knows an ambulance is needed at the garage, he went on, but “it’s hard to pass something when you don’t know what it’s going to cost.”
He asked if Kleaving could provide, in 30 days, accurate figures about the ongoing cost.
“Is it 20 thousand, is it going to cost us $100,000 a year, is it going to cost $300,000?” he asked. “I just wish we had some figures.”
Kleaving said he didn’t know if he could provide accurate figures in 30 days, but could provide what he learned at a hospital-board meeting two days earlier. Of alternatives presented then, “we’d be looking at the (least-expensive) option,” he said. “It’s going to get the job we need at that time.”
“We’ve got to move in the right direction in this county,” he continued. “We haven’t stopped anywhere else. Look at the jail. Look at the courthouse. Look at the hospital. We’re moving down the road.”
Some of the decisions behind those constructions have been tough, he said.
Perry and Spencer counties have had an agreement to back each other up when ambulance calls become numerous, but Spencer County canceled it Jan. 1.
“They terminated our contract because we’ve been abusing (them) on runs,” he said, adding that discussions with that county’s commissioners would lead to renewing the agreement.
Crawford speculated that most of the people in the audience were from northern parts of Perry County and asked how many would support a tax increase to fund the extended ambulance service. All or nearly all of them raised their hands.
“What’s a life worth?” Dave Devillez asked from the back of the room. “How much is one of them worth, just one?” He said later he lives along Apalona Road near what used to be called Michael’s Market.
“A whole bunch,” Crawford said. “I’m glad to see that you all are wanting it bad enough that you’re willing to pay for it down the road if it comes to that.”
“I don’t like to pay taxes any more than anybody else does,” said Jerry Kamies of Leopold. A lot of elderly people live out in the county and “20 minutes (off an ambulance run) makes a hell of a difference.”
“So many of our taxes, we don’t know where it goes to,” he continued. “It goes to Indianapolis, it goes to (Washington) D.C.,” he noted, “but if there was ever a reason to raise taxes … I’d be one of the first to volunteer for it, because this is something we need eventually. I know this isn’t going to bring an ambulance to us next week, but we have to make a step somewhere. This is a good step.”
“Folks, I couldn’t agree with you more,” Mathena said, suggesting a police officer should also be stationed at the garage. Putting an ambulance crew there could cost up to $300,000, however, and the county has already obligated taxpayers to help pay the hospital-construction cost if its revenues aren’t sufficient, he noted. A comprehensive plan “will cost around $50,000, and that money will have to come out of that EDIT money,” he continued. The new jail will boost capacity from 46 to 132 inmates and “it’s going to take more officers, it’s going to take more food, it’s going to take more everything and expenses are going up.”
“The state may toss us a bone,” he went on. It has provided funding in the past, “but it wasn’t enough and it most likely won’t be now. There are some annexations that are going to be taking place in the county, at least two that I know of, one in Tell City and one at Troy, which means less money in the county coffers.”
Elimination of property taxes on business equipment could also cut funds flowing into the county, Mathena said, calling it a real possibility.
“This council just cut half a million dollars from the budget,” he continued. “We couldn’t give our employees any raises at all. The only people who got raises were the ones that were state-mandated. That broke my heart, because I happen to think we have the best employees in the country.”
Next year’s funding is uncertain, he continued.
“Do we want to raise taxes if we have to generate more money, or do we want to cut programs?” he asked. “If you want to cut programs, what programs do you want to cut? You can’t take money out of a bucket that’s empty, and our bucket is empty.”
With the new hospital being built on Indiana 237 and quick access to Indiana 37, which he noted is wide enough for motorists to pull over for ambulances, “they’re going to cut maybe as much as 10 percent off the transit times from Tell City to the northernmost part of the county,” Mathena said. “I just really believe we need more time to look at this. Am I against it? Absolutely no. I’d love to have it.”
His concern is only about the money, he said, suggesting the issue be tabled for 30 days to allow time to study it. “We’ve had no ambulance out there all of my lifetime,” he added. “Thirty more days won’t make that much difference.”
Kleaving told Mathena the issue before the council was only the $20,000.
“Why buy the socks if we can’t afford the shoes?” the councilman asked.
Kleaving noted the new hospital and jail are being built in the southern part of the county and said he gets “lots of complaints that northern Perry County has been forgot about by this county.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Mathena replied. “We need to do more for northern Perry County.”
“$20,000 will do a lot out there,” Kleaving said, “just showing we still care in this community. And that’s all we’re asking for tonight, is $20,000 to build something probably worth $50,000 or $100,000 if you had to go get it done somewhere else.”
The $20,000 “pays for the safety of the people of Perry County,” he said, noting most of the rescue workers in attendance were volunteers. “If we had to pay for these guys, the work they do … we would be broke. These people are amazing,” he said, listing the county’s various volunteer fire departments.
Goffinet called for a vote on the motion to approve the $20,000. Crawford asked if its purpose could be changed to eliminate any reference to an ambulance. Council attorney Jim Tyler said it couldn’t because it was advertised to include it. County Auditor Connie Berger added it was worded to include the ambulance reference in a letter from the commissioners and in the county’s EDIT plan.
Kleaving said after the meeting follow-on costs provided by the hospital included four options including different mixes of part- and full-time staffing of the station.
Hauser said the site of the new hospital is 11 miles from the county garage, which “was built in the dead center of the county to serve the entire county” with easy access to its other main roads such as Indiana highways 37 and 70 and French Ridge, Leopold and Locust roads. It was also built with a dispatch console and houses rescue trucks.
“The plan was well thought out,” Hauser added. “It wasn’t just by accident that it ended up there.”
“The big thing is we need an additional ambulance,” he added, “and the proper place to put it is at the center of the county.”