Triage needed for ambulance dept.

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By Damon Lawrence

Ambulances will still be running in Roane County after June 30.

Under whose operation is now in question.

Roane County Executive Ron Woody said the financial situation facing the county’s ambulance department is so dire that he has to look into outsourcing the service.

“If we continue on the way we are, one of these days somebody is not going to get a paycheck and an ambulance is not going to run,” Woody said. “I’m not going to have that for Roane County, so I’m going to get prepared in our planning stages for an alternative.”

The budget committee had a lengthy discussion about the ambulance situation on Tuesday.

The back and forth got heated at times.

Ambulance director Gloria Wright referred to a letter Woody sent her on Tuesday.

“Based on your lack of response to my request of finding solutions to the ambulance department operations, we shall begin our planning process of outsourcing the operations,” the letter said.

Wright was clearly upset with Woody’s plans.  

“Understand that letters like this is what loses good employees for the county,” she told Woody at the meeting.

Wright said she didn’t get the letter until the day of the budget committee meeting.

However, Woody referenced an Oct. 19 letter Wright received asking her to prepare a presentation with bullet points to explain what she was doing to solve the problems facing the ambulance department.  

“The Oct. 19 letter you’ve had, because I hand-delivered that one,” Woody said.

“I’m not here to make excuses, Mr. Woody, because I always do my job,” Wright responded. “I’ve worked for this county almost 25 years, and I always do my job.”

The county is already looking at outsourcing the ambulance department’s billing operation. Wright said she’s been working on a plan for more than two months, but said uncertainty over the billing situation is what prevented her from putting together a bullet-point presentation.

“I can’t put bullets together for you until I know what’s going to be happening with bidding this out and to get the blessing or not blessing of the ambulance committee,” she told Woody.   

Last March, which was before Woody took office, Wright went before the budget committee and said some of the revenue problems were caused by paramedics and the billing office.  

“Ms. Wright, this goes back to you standing before the county commission in March telling us that you knew what the problems were — a $50,000 mistake was made by you all,” Commissioner Ron Berry said.

“Not by me,” Wright responded. “By the billing department.”

“No, by you folks,” Berry countered.

Sonya Brooks was over the ambulance billing during the time frame Berry was referring to.     

“Any information I gave you came from Ms. Brooks,” Wright told Berry.

“No, it didn’t,” Berry responded. “You sat right there in March and said you were going to have it fixed by July.”

Commissioner Randy Ellis said he didn’t like the tone of the discussion.

“This whole situation here is a little uncomfortable to me,” he said.

“I’m sorry you don’t feel good about it,” Berry told Ellis. “But I don’t feel bad about it because this started back in March.”

The ambulance department is projected to have just $18,000 when the fiscal year ends June 30. That’s not enough to keep the department operating.

In addition to outsourcing, another option commissioners have is increasing the property tax rate.

Woody said he plans to present the ambulance budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year to the commission in March.

That’s earlier than normal, but Woody said he wants the commission to have ample time to make a decision about the future of Roane County’s ambulance service.    

“We are going forward with any alternative measures that need to be taken,” Woody said.

“Does that mean we’re bidding this thing out to outsource it? No, it does not. Does that mean we’re looking at it to be prepared if we have to? Definitely it does.”