SEOEMS can still be saved

Published 10:28 am Wednesday, July 14, 2010

If Southeast Ohio Emergency Medical Services is going to be resuscitated, it is time that all involved look at the vital signs and determine a cure for the illness that plagues the publicly-funded ambulance service that serves Athens, Jackson and Lawrence counties.

The ambulance service is struggling financially because revenue was overprojected and expenses were either underestimated or simply ignored.

Right now, SEOEMS is in nearly a quarter of a million dollar hole.

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Having a quality ambulance service is key when it comes to maintaining quality of life here in southern Ohio and continuing to make the region appealing to others. Publicly operated services have some benefits over their private counterparts including more control and accountability to the taxpayers.

A key question that must be answered before moving forward is this: What do citizens want to pay for and are they willing to push their elected officials to make this happen?

SEOEMS is funded through charging those who use the service as well as contracts it has with the three county governments. The problem is that here in Lawrence County the money for that contract primarily comes from the half-cent sales tax adopted several years ago when the ambulance tax levy was taken off the books.

Despite the way it was originally explained to the public, much of the revenue from the tax goes elsewhere including the sheriff’s office, the coroner’s office, the dog warden and others. Our commissioners must make a decision as to whether or not this is the right approach.

If we move forward from the point that SEOEMS needs saved — regardless of whether or not that includes other counties or becomes just Lawrence — a plan must be adopted.

Short term, the county must look at operating in the black by trimming expenses, selling unneeded assets and ensuring that its financial books are providing an accurate picture. Another key part is to look at billing.

The best long-term solution may be to create a consolidated plan that would adequately fund all emergency services — police, ambulance, fire — through a combination of a replacement half cent sales tax that is clearly defined in its uses and a property tax levy.

Taxpayers will support a legitimate plan if they are convinced that everything is being done to operate efficiently and that a clear plan is in place to provide this needed service.

Simply sitting back and doing nothing, or pointing fingers, won’t keep SEOEMS from flatlining and leaving Lawrence Countians at risk.