When the board of the Southeast Ohio Emergency Services (SEOEMS) District meets in Jackson Tuesday night, it will grapple with whether the district, reportedly facing a drastic budget shortfall and long-standing financial and organizational problems, can continue to survive.
The head of the union that represents SEOEMS employees said the union wants to see the three-county district stay together. But if that's not possible, she added, she wants to see the three individual counties - Athens, Lawrence and Jackson - set up their own, single-county EMS districts.
"We hope that we can save the district, but if we can't save the district, we hope that each of the county commissions considers a county EMS, rather than contracting with a private company," said Ann Marie Callebs, president of UMWA Local 490, at a gathering of about a dozen union members Friday.
Athens County Commissioner Larry Payne, who is one of the county's three representatives on the SEOEMS board, however, noted that the union has already been informed that dissolution is one of the possible options.
"We basically have told the union that everything's on the table," Payne said Friday. "That's basically everything from SEOEMS trying to stay together, to receivership, to dissolving the district."
As of the latest figures, Payne said, SEOEMS is about $1 million behind on an annual budget of more than $8 million. Each of the three member counties pays into the district from tax monies - Athens and Jackson have EMS levies, while Lawrence uses general fund money - and the district also gets revenue from payments by patients for ambulance runs.
Athens and Lawrence each put in around $3 million, and Jackson a little under $2 million, Payne said.
The current problems facing SEOEMS aren't new, according to Payne; they also aren't attributable to any single factor.
He said challenges include a long-standing problem with accounting software that has made it hard to get accurate financial data; a drop in calls for emergency service as the economy has tanked; the loss of Medicare reimbursements for EMS runs (now restored); and communications problems between the board and the previous fiscal officer. This latter issue, according to Payne, led to a situation in which the board learned recently to its surprise that it was facing "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in unpaid bills.
"It's not just one thing; it's a combination of things," Payne stressed. "A lot of things were beyond people's controls."
The unpaid bills - including state and federal tax bills - came to light after fiscal officer Mike McCathren left the position recently after only about a year on the job. However, Payne said, McCathren shouldn't be held responsible for the current crisis.
"You can't blame him," Payne said. "I think he inherited a big problem, and tried to do the best he could... It wasn't like it was his fault." Payne added that the federal tax bill has now been paid, and the district is in the process clearing up the back state taxes as well.
CALLEBS OF UMWA 490 SAID the union believes its membership has been holding up its end, and also doesn't want to point fingers at the district board. Employees do, however, have some questions they'd like answered about money management by SEOEMS' executive officers, she said.
"Mr. Payne is right about it being the perfect (financial) storm," she said. "But we do not have an unreasonable contract, so we do not want to be blamed for any of the financial problems that are going on."
She added, "We have no beef whatsoever with any of the county commissioners. Our issues are mostly management issues... We are very, very supportive of our county commissioners. We really couldn't ask for better county commissioners."
Callebs noted that the union has submitted a request to the district for financial records, and has not yet received them - though it has been promised it will get some of what it has asked for by Monday afternoon.
In a letter dated July 6, Callebs asked the district headquarters in Gallipolis for information including the number of all EMS calls, broken down by county, for 2008 and 2009; the 2009 wage-related expenses for both union bargaining unit members and station chiefs (who are in management, not the union); the district's 2009 federal tax return; and any internal or external audits of the district in the last five years.
In a response letter two days later, SEOEMS Executive Director Eric Kuhn informed Callebs that while some of what she'd asked for was readily accessible and could be picked up Monday after 3 p.m., "some of it is significantly beyond 'routine' and will require a great deal of staff time to locate, gather and copy." Kuhn predicted that this harder-to-collect information might take up to 30 days to produce.
THE MOST RECENT STATE AUDIT of SEOEMS was issued in May 2008, and covered the years 2006 and 2007.
That audit showed that from 2006 to 2007, the district's total net assets dropped by more than $280,000, from about $847,000 to about $567,000.
The audit also found that from 2006 to 2007, the district's cash expenditures listed under "miscellaneous" went up by 468 percent, from about $44,000 to over $251,000. In 2007, the district posted a loss of more than $400,000 in operating income, taking in about $7.7 million in cash receipts, and disbursing about $8.1 million.
Payne said problems with the SEOEMS budget have been chronic for the last couple of years, and that it may be time for the three counties to think about handling EMS services independently.
He noted that Athens County already owns its SEOEMS buildings and squads, and suggested it might be better off in its own district.
"Over the years, SEOEMS has provided very good service... but that (multi-county) model may be out of date," the commissioner suggested. The question he must ask, he said, is what's best for the county.
"Are we still getting an advantage by being in a multi-county district?" he asked. "The thing we have to look at is... is SEOEMS viable to still provide a service for our county, or would we be better off to have our own emergency services district, to be run by Athens County?" Callebs said she believes the three-county district does offer advantages to district residents, because when one county's squads get hammered with calls, another's can help out covering the first county's territory.
"There are other district EMS's in the state," she said. "It's a wonderful concept. You know that when you pick up the phone and dial 911 in this district, you're going to get a squad... We need to keep it together if we can."
She acknowledged, too, that union members could lose seniority standing in a state pension fund if the multi-county district is broken up, and the employees have to start work with either a private company or a new single-county district.
Payne suggested the board isn't dead-set on dissolving the district, but said that each county's representatives have to plan ahead to cover their county's needs if worse comes to worst.
"We have to be prepared. What we're trying to do is be pro-active," he explained. "We have to have Plan B... If things work out, that's great. (But) this has been going on for two and a half years... We've got to do something."