CHARLES TOWN — Despite canceling their regular Thursday meeting due to the July 4 holiday week, the Jefferson County Commission held a special meeting Friday to advance plans for an ambulance service run by the count. The commissioners have been pushing for a countywide ambulance service that will be under their control for several months, and Friday’s decisions bring them one step closer to that goal.
Earlier this spring, the county tasked county administrator John Nissel with several assignments aimed at purchasing ambulances, securing space to house those vehicles, and licensing the ambulance service through from a voluntary basis to a fully county-run system.
During Friday’s meeting, Commissioners considered several steps towards their “work in progress” objective. A motion has been brought forward to hire a public relations firm to educate the public on county actions. Administrative Assistant Jessica Carroll explained to the Commissioners the importance of hiring such a firm.
“The intention is to maximize public information and be fully transparent and establish engagement,” Carroll says. “This may be difficult for the layman to understand.”
Chief Financial Officer Michelle Gordon said a request for proposal has been announced and two companies have responded. The suggested company, Engage, is the one county staff recommended for the job, with a cost of around $125 per hour.
“It is estimated that it will take around six to nine months at a cost of no more than $100,000,” Gordon said, adding that she recommended the maximum amount be set at the $100,000 level.
Gordon went on to say that the cost of the venture could not be taken from ARPA funds, which the county set aside $5.5 million for their ambulance project, so the amount would have to come from from the general fund.
Commissioners Tricia Jackson and Clare Ath had reservations about spending that amount of money on the PR firm.
“It makes me a little uncomfortable” said Jackson.
Nissel explained that it’s common to hire PR firms for projects like this.
“We don’t have the time or the expertise to do this piece,” Nissel said. “But it’s an important piece that needs to be done.”
Jackson decided to hire the company, but cap its cost at $40,000 over three months, then reassess the need for additional expenses.
The group then moved into executive session, closed to the public, to discuss the possibility of changing the designation of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency from a board-run, quasi-governmental unit to a department of county under the control of the commission. After the nearly hour-long closed session, County Attorney Nathan Cochran outlined the pros and cons of the possible change. Benefits of making the entity a county department included allowing the county to have complete oversight over personnel and operations and to have financial control. Disadvantages included that the county may have more hoops to jump through to obtain licenses than the agency currently has under its board of directors. Another disadvantage described by Cochran was the additional workload for county administrative staff.
Commissioner Steve Stolipher questioned whether paramedics would still be able to place fire calls if the agency was turned into a county department. Cochran didn’t have the answer and said that would be up to the State Fire Commission.
Jackson said the current JCESA is working very well.
“Perhaps reinventing the wheel to try to make it a department will create unnecessary disruption,” said Jackson.
Stolipher, however, expressed a desire for additional information, particularly from the state, that would allow the change to move forward by making the agency a county department.
The latest action by the commissioners came after a presentation by JCESA Director Bob Burner outlining a plan for ambulances to be placed at four county fire stations, Harpers Ferry, Citizens, Shepherdstown and Independent. There would be six ambulances staffed during the day and five at night.
Gordon presented several explanations and funding scenarios to enable the county to pay for the plan, including using ARPA funding for additional hires until funding runs out. At this point, she said, the county should have the funds to cover what federal funds originally paid for. She also pointed out that in addition to the cost of additional staff, the county would cover the cost of fuel, maintenance, licenses and supplies for the ambulances – what voluntary companies currently pay.
Stolipher moved a motion to approve the model presented by Burner, which also included the hiring of 12 additional staff members.
“I like the project” said Commissioner Jane Tabb. “But, I think it is premature to pass it today. We need to plan our framework first as well as the operational structure,” Tabb said.
Jackson, who had seconded Stolipher’s motion, pointed out that “It’s just a plan, a piece of the puzzle.”
The two agreed to a change to their motion and then to move forward with the plan subject to the county obtaining ambulances first, cost-sharing agreements for the use of space for to house the ambulances and the creation of an organizational structure. The amended motion is carried unanimously.