Monday, May 11, 2009

Budget cuts may hit emergency services

Middle Tennessee counties face limited choices to balance budgets By Clay Carey • THE TENNESSEAN • May 11, 2009 David Stricklin has never had to call an ambulance to his Smyrna home. But he lives within a half-mile of one stationed on Almaville Road, and it has no shortage of work. "They stay busy all the time," Stricklin said. Budget cuts could make the work of Rutherford paramedics even harder. As local governments in the Nashville area begin the process of balancing budgets hit hard by tax shortfalls during a bad economy, emergency services have found their way into the discussion. On the table: cutting back on police or fire staff, putting off the construction of new stations, and shutting down ambulance crews. Those cuts can be hard pills for citizens and leaders to swallow, officials say. But hard economic times have limited the choices they have. To cover an $8 million budget shortfall, Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess has recommended reducing the county ambulance service's management staff to save money. That would not mean cutting medics in service at any given time. Burgess' option will be among those considered when county commissioners start examining department budget requests this week, but so will some much deeper cuts. Without a tax increase, Rutherford County may well have to resort to emergency-worker furloughs, staff reductions or closing an ambulance station, county Finance Director Lisa Nolen said. Those are options officials like Burgess hope to avoid. "We don't have any surplus in those positions," Burgess said. "I don't think there is a way to furlough those employees without affecting the health and safety of our employees, as well as the public." The cuts worry residents like Stricklin, who fears that people might have to pay a lot for ambulance service. "The county really doesn't offer that much in the way of services as it is," he said. "You can't start butchering up the emergency services." Few alternatives to cuts Cutting emergency services is hard to contemplate, said Fred Congdon, executive director of the Tennessee Association of County Mayors. But governments, especially counties, sometimes have few alternatives, he said. School budgets often make up two-thirds or more of a county's spending, and federal mandates make cutting education spending difficult. "If the revenue is not there, they've got to find some other place to pare down the budget," Congdon said. "Unfortunately, sometimes it's in the services that people want. It's either that or raise taxes." Leaders can relate to that in Hendersonville, where Mayor Scott Foster is proposing a 12-cent property tax increase to stave off cuts in police and fire. La Vergne officials decided against expanding the fire department this year because of budget worries. The fire department, which a private company runs under contract, had plans to ask for three new officers a year for the next six years. The request came in the wake of an inspection by an organization that rates community fire services for insurance purposes. Assistant Fire Chief Ricky McCormick said La Vergne's inspection revealed the department needed 18 additional firefighters to keep its current rating. If the department hasn't added them by the next inspection, which could come in as soon as three years, La Vergne's rating could drop, forcing residents to pay more for homeowners insurance. "It's pay for it now or pay for it later," McCormick said, adding that holding off on bringing on new firefighters won't jeopardize safety. But, he said, "the more (firefighters) we have to put on at one time, the more it taxes us in terms of training." Unpopular choices Rutherford's financial position puts the county in a hard spot, County Commissioner Anthony Johnson said. Tax increases are unpopular with residents, but so are cuts in emergency services. "The bottom line is, we have to pay our bills," he said. "But I don't believe in cutting services people want and need." Similar discussions have been going on in Sumner County. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed the reductions could be serious. Ambulance service revenue was at least $400,000 below expectations. To make up the difference, county officials asked for a plan that would have saved $125,000 by the end of the year — at the cost of permanently parking three of the squad's 11 ambulances. Another more extensive plan would have taken six ambulances off the road. "It had to affect services," said Keith Douglas, director of the Sumner County Emergency Medical Service. "We had to look at the emergency side." For now, it seems Sumner has dodged the most serious cuts. Douglas presented a plan to county commissioners last week that cut $312,000 out of the EMS budget without reducing ambulance crews. "I don't think in emergency services that there is much fat to be trimmed," Douglas said. "Even if you just shut down one ambulance, it affects the whole system. … It affects the whole county."

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