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Ambulance Service Rebounds

DUNLAP, Tenn. -- Sequatchie County's ambulance service is rebounding from financial troubles that started in 2006, and could even finish the fiscal year with a surplus.

"We're starting to dig ourselves out of a hole," County Executive Michael Hudson said.

Midway through fiscal 2008-09, collections for the Sequatchie County Emergency Services stand at $408,234, Mr. Hudson said. The department's total budget is a little more than $700,000.

When he was appointed as county executive a year ago, Mr. Hudson said, the ambulance service was having to borrow money from the county.

"Now, they have a fairly healthy fund balance," he said and credited the turnaround to the department's director, staff and billing clerk.

"But we're nowhere near where I want to be. There's still room for improvement," Mr. Hudson said.

Commissioners learned of the money problems in September 2007 when they had to transfer $40,000 to the emergency services to keep ambulances on the road. Commissioners put up about $115,000 to keep the ambulance service running during a four-month period.

Officials said it was "mismanagement" and an "administrative error" to blame, and no illegal activity involved.

Former director Paul Howard resigned in September 2007 to take a job at the sheriff's department. He told commissioners a keyboarding error and changes in billing procedures led to problems, and they weren't addressed because the billing clerk had resigned.

Sequatchie County Commissioner Redgie Camp said one problem was what he calls "chasing lights" -- emergency units responding en masse to a single event.

He said now the ambulance department's financial status is "quite a bit better than what it was. I think they're doing a fairly decent job."

Danny Smith, appointed director after Mr. Howard resigned, said the answer was simple. A new billing clerk, Brandi Smith, now keeps up with insurance changes and all the department's billing remains current, he said.

"She's been doing an excellent job, keeping us informed and working well with us," he said.

The department is operating "in the black" except for money still owed to the county's general fund, he said. That will be paid off as the service becomes more financially healthy, Mr. Smith said.

Meanwhile, the county also is trying to collect on ambulance service bills going as far back as 2006. "That shows you how far behind some of those were. Some of those we'll never collect, and we'll have to write those off," Mr. Hudson said.

He said his long-term goal is to raise the department's service level to a Class A, with a paramedic in every ambulance. The county's current Class B staffing has two full-time and several part-time paramedics available but not in all ambulances, he said.

The department's finances first must improve enough to boost pay and benefits to compete with other counties in keeping workers, he said.

"I just want to keep improving," the county executive said.

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