Local News

County will look at privatizing EMS, county attorney, other departments

SEBRING - For more than six months, local tea party members have asked the Highlands County commissioners to privatize the public ambulance service.
In fact, the commissioners may go farther than that in a 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting at the County Government Building. In a goal-setting workshop last week, the five talked about various departments it would make sense to privatize. Recycling and legal services have been on that list for years, and both are on the agenda for Tuesday morning's meeting.
The opposite approach would be taken to the county attorney, however, since Ross Macbeth is in private practice and bills the county by the hour.
For the past five years, Macbeth has billed an average of $246,000 per year. Commissioners will look at other counties who have in-house counselors and determine if money could be saved. However, in the Feb. 18 meeting, Commissioners Jim Brooks and Ron Handley favored looking at an in-house attorney, Greg Harris and Jack Richie said Macbeth provides a great service and they would not consider replacing him. That could leave the deciding vote to Don Elwell.
County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete has been trying for years to find a private contractor to provide curbside recycling. That seemed easier when the market paid more for recycled glass, metal, paper, cardboard and plastic. However, it may not be a break-even proposition these days, contractors have told the county.
Commissioners are also divided on Emergency Medical Services: Richie wants to look at the idea in a workshop; Elwell prefers a financial analysis and a study of whether more EMS stations are needed around the county; Harris might be for privatization if the county could save a substantial annual sum; Brooks said firmly that EMS is the county's responsibility to provide.
"Before we even start picking which ones we want to investigate, love our EMS folks," Harris began. "Love the services they provide. Better than no other. However, if we could save a million dollars by privatizing EMS, I think we owe it to the voters that we at least look at it. If we can only save $100,000, maybe we don't look at it. If we don't save anything or it costs us more, we certainly don't look at it. I think we need to know what we're paying, going in, and what we can expect to save."
"Especially EMS. There is more there than just dollars," Elwell said, and asked for a needs analysis for both fire departments and EMS. "There might have been growth in certain areas and not others. Maybe we need another EMS station or two."
"If we're making 14,000 runs a year and our times are averaging 6.5 minutes, I would think that's pretty good," Harris said.
"Our response time may be 3 or 4 minutes in downtown Sebring," Elwell said. "But in Lorida or Spring Lake or Highlands Ridge, it is going to be a lot longer. It's an averages game, we all know that. If we can drop that response time from 6.5 to 5.5 minutes, we've saved a lot of lives."
"We're under-utilizing our fire stations," Richie said. "They are equipped with kitchens, parking areas for ambulances, and we're not taking advantage of that. We are having duplication of services and building space, and it's costing us a tremendous amount of money. We should be concentrating on what kind of fire stations that can help us the most, instead of going around and building more buildings."
A third, unbiased party should study EMS and fire, Elwell said. "It has apparently been over two decades."
The survey, he said, would "let us know, based on population, where are we susceptible." It might also tell the county where to relocate existing stations so as to reach as much of the population as EMS can in the least amount of time.
"And how many patients do we need to have," he asked, based on calls in the past.
With the information we have now, he said, "I don't believe privatizing EMS would be a beneficial move at all. However, I'm certainly willing look at other models."
Brooks favored EMS directors over the years for an ongoing needs analysis. "You're always going to have a large geographic area where you're not going to be able to put an ambulance."
"Can we do better?" Elwell insisted. "If someone moves to a remote area of the county, I understand that. I just know with the 1,100 square miles we have, eight stations may not be enough."
An outside analyst might charge from $30,000 to $60,000, EMS Director Harvey Craven said. "I don't think it would show you that much more than I could, in house."
"We started with the goal of looking at ways to save money," Harris said. "Thirty minutes into the meeting, and we're looking at spending $55,000."
"We're not looking to save money, we're looking to better improve this county," Elwell countered.
Commissioners picked a list of two dozen services they might consider privatizing, and asked for a workshop in March.
On Friday, public information officer Gloria Rybinski said a workshop for EMS is not scheduled on the regular meeting dates, March 4 or 18.