By Fred Woods
The Lee County Commission held work sessions Monday night with the Lee County Recreation Board to discuss the relationship between the commission and the Board since the passage of the 1-cent county sales tax (half of which goes for county recreation) and ambulance service in the county, primarily the Smiths Station area.
In its regular meeting the Recreation Board re-elected Jerry Southwell (Beulah) as president, Richard Brown (Beauregard) as vice-president and Linda Hilyer (Beulah) as secretary. With the second reading of the nomination of Janis Frazier (Loachapoka) at the next commission meeting, the board will be at full strength. However, the board asked the commission to replace the at-large member for non-attendance at meetings.
The board exists as an instrument of the county commission, so all distributions of funds and purchases must go through the commission.
While the ambulance service work session was billed as county-wide, its primary focus was service in Smiths Station, where there are two ambulance services: EAMC’s Emergency Transport System (ETS), which holds the Lee County contract for ambulance service, and CARE, a private ambulance service from Columbus that provides ambulance service to Phenix City and Russell County. CARE, the obvious preference of the Smiths Station Volunteer Fire Department, and ETS reportedly sometimes compete to see who gets to an accident scene first.
The Auburn, Opelika and Lee County governments have, for more than 30 years contracted with EAMC (ETS) to provide emergency ambulance service to the county. The three governments each currently pay ETS approximately $290,000 annually to subsidize the service, either the highest or one of the highest ambulance subsidies in the state, according to some sources.
Joe Acker, director of the Birmingham Regional Emergency Response System, one of two outside resource people present at the session, stated that it was highly unusual for one county to pay almost a million dollars in ambulance subsidy.
After the two cities, the highest population concentration in the county is the Smiths Station community (much larger than the incorporated town of Smiths Station) – more than 30,000 people. More than half the ambulance calls from outside Auburn and Opelika are from the Smiths Station area.
The issues over ambulance service seem to deal with response times – Smiths Station is the farthest Lee County community away from the hospital in Opelika – and the fact that Smiths Station is, both historically and currently, a part of the Phenix City/Columbus, Ga., trade area.
The U.S. Bureau of Census includes both Phenix City and Smiths Station in the Columbus Georgia/Alabama Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA).
Acker, the Birmingham expert, advised commissioners to step back and develop a set of standards for county-wide ambulance service. He recommended the standards include expectations for response time, transport time, cost and quality of service.
He told commissioners and audience to use readily available data as a basis for rational decision making and take the emotion out of the discussion.
He further suggested that the commission consider challenging ETS and CARE officials to sit down and develop a workable plan.
The two services agreed to provide the commission transport and transmission data soon.