Somerset Council votes to pull out of city/county EMS agreement

Mar. 19—The Somerset City Council approved a resolution Monday night in which the city would pull out of the EMS interlocal agreement with Pulaski County Government, leaving the administration of the emergency medical service solely under Fiscal Court.

Council members voted 8 to 4 in favor of pulling out from jointly operating the service. The four council members who voted against the resolution were Amanda "Bean" Bullock, Jerry Wheeldon, Robin Daughetee and John Ricky Minton.

Fiscal Court would have to accept taking full operation of the service before the action would be official.

Somerset Mayor Alan Keck said that the resolution was a reaction to comments made by county magistrates and County Judge-Executive Marshall Todd over the past few weeks indicating that they thought county government would be better at running the department.

Keck read out loud during the City Council meeting a quote from Todd from last week's Fiscal Court meeting.

That quote was: "We feel that the emergency funding situation the City of Somerset finds itself in regarding EMS is not so much a crisis of funding as it is a mismanagement of resources and focus."

Keck responded, "Fiscal court has, through these comments and others, ... sent a strong signal to me that they would rather run it. I don't believe that they can run it without us contributing and provide the level of care that we have come to expect."

The resolution proposes that the city would pay $400,000 each year to the county "to assure all existing Somerset-Pulaski County EMS employees keep compensation and benefits equal to those benefits the(y) received from the City of Somerset."

Keck said that was intended to help EMS employees, which he and several council members stated they did not want to see lose benefits or jobs due to the changes.

The city would also pay a 2.5% cost of living increase for 10 years.

The resolution also states that all assets would be inventoried immediately to determine ownership of such assets. That includes the EMS property, building, vehicles and equipment.

In previous meetings, city officials have stated they own the land that the EMS building sits on, while the county has put in the majority of the money into the building itself.

The resolution dictates that the city would lease all of its assets to the county "so long as the County provides service in the City of Somerset equal to or better than Somerset-Pulaski County EMS. If service in the City of Somerset is below that currently experienced by citizens of the City ... the City would have the right to take back said assets and operate EMS in the City only."

The resolution is the latest chapter in the story of the city trying to secure more funding for EMS from the County. Under the current agreement, the city pays for all payroll and insurance for employees. The county gives $1.3 million a year to the service for operations.

In January, Keck had reached out to magistrates asking for an extra $150,000 in the next budget year, $150,000 the year after, and a 2.5% cost of living raise each year after that.

Despite initially responding negatively to the request, Fiscal Court last week approved that request — with stipulations.

Those included creating a board of directors that would fairly represent both the city and the county governments and that would oversee the administration of EMS.

It also proposed bringing in an independent consulting firm to develop a strategic plan for EMS.

Bullock, one of the council members who voted against the city's resolution, said of the county's plan, "I don't really like the idea of a board to run this, especially if a board would not involve EMS workers. It shouldn't just be people who aren't in the middle of it trying to make rules for something they don't understand."

She did say, however, that she was in favor of a mediator to come in and work with both sides, but acknowledged that someone would have to pay for that, too.

Keck stated that an advisory board has merit, but it cannot be one that oversees the operation of the department if the city is still in charge of the liability for EMS. He said he did not think it would be legal for the city to relinquish authority over a department it had liability of, but it would certainly be "unworkable."

Many council members expressed appreciation for the employees of EMS, as well as concern that their jobs would be negatively impacted by the city pulling out of the current agreement.

Council Member Jim Mitchell said that, like most council members, he only has a few family members living within city limits, while most live outside the city in the county.

"I don't want to do anything against the county. I want this thing to work," he said.

He also said he didn't want to harm the jobs of those in EMS.

While Mitchell was one of those who voted "yes" to the resolution to pull out of the city/county agreement, he noted that it was only because he felt Fiscal Court would be able to look at the resolution and come back to the council with negotiated terms.

In comparison, fellow Councilor Minton voted "no" to the resolution, but only because he wanted to give Fiscal Court time to look over it first.

"That's the only reason I'm voting no. I agree with everything that's in there," Minton said.

Councilor Tom Eastham asked about the money that the city would give the county in the proposed resolution, pointing out that while the city provides insurance that covers families of EMS workers, the county's insurance does not provide that automatically, and that county employees must pay a large rate to have insurance on their family members.

Keck said that the city pays "a very large percentage" of family insurance for EMS employees, and that costs the city around $250,000 a year.

Therefore, $250,000 of the $400,000 the city would give would be intended for the county to continue to pay EMS workers' families' insurance.

As new EMS hires come on board, they would be hired under the county's current insurance plan, Keck said.

"In theory and in reality, over time the county would be able to use more and more of that $400,000 for operating expenses and less of it over time toward those benefits," Keck said.

Councilor Jerry Wheeldon, whose brother Jimmy Wheeldon is a county magistrate, voted "no" to the resolution. He commented that he didn't think it was a good idea to hand over total management of the department to the county.

"I've been here a long time, and we've tried different things with it. ... and nothing works except the way it is now," Jerry Wheeldon said.

He added that he was in favor of having more meetings on the subject.

However, Councilor Jerry Girdler seemed to agree with Keck that comments made by magistrates indicated they thought they could run it better.

"If the county feels like they can run it more efficiently and better than we can, then I think we ought to give them the opportunity to try it. They might find out it might be different," Girdler said.

Councilor Daughetee went one step further, calling out Judge Todd for his comments that EMS was being mismanaged by Somerset.

"I don't think the letter from the judge was in the spirit of cooperation. In fact I found it downright insulting," Daughetee said.

He went on to say: "I'm concerned about that governing body that really doesn't seem like they even understand simple economics. It's still recognizing the inflationary increase of goods and services. They choose to claim mismanagement. Well, if that's the case, their 2020 budget was somewhere around $32 million. Their 2024 budget is somewhere around $46 million. If you use the same premise that the judge presented as mismanagement, then apparently they're mismanaging county funds because their budget's increased."

Council member Patrick Hunley voted in favor of the resolution, but in his comments wondered if by giving the county money now, magistrates would come back to the city — much like the city is doing to the county now — and demand more.

"If so, then we've backed up, we've not went forward. ... Maybe we should all put our egos in the closet and try to work together to work this out for the better of the county and the city," Hunley said.

Councilor David Godsey brought up the fact that the City of Somerset is the only city in the county that provides funding for EMS — not Ferguson, Science Hill, Eubank or Burnside.

"I know it couldn't be a big portion, but I think anything could help to offset some of these expenses," he said.

Councilor Jimmy Eastham asked what would happen to EMS's name. Would it continue to be called Somerset-Pulaski County EMS, or would the "Somerset" part be dropped?

Keck said that as long as the city was contributing money to the department and city-owned assets were involved, he would encourage the county to keep the current name.

Carla Slavey can be reached at cslavey@somerset-kentucky.com