Elected officials and fire chiefs from Orange, Liberty, Genoa and Harlem townships and the city of Delaware on Thursday, Oct. 31, provided Delaware County commissioners with a proposal that would shift a larger portion of the county's EMS funds into the municipalities that provide more than fire services.
The group has been meeting since January in hopes of discussing the topic with all three county commissioners, but this was the first time that's been possible.
The county has been collecting a 0.5-percent sales tax since 1972 to run a countywide ambulance service. But townships and cities that run EMS out of their fire departments -- servicing almost half of the county's population -- are asking commissioners to consider funding their operations instead by sharing a chunk of the $18 million in tax revenue that's expected to roll in this year.
"When this was proposed in the '70s, it addressed a more-rural county," said Delaware City Manager Tom Homan.
According to records provided by Liberty Township Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber, the county took in $226,194 in its first year of the tax. The amount of sales taxes collected for ambulance services since 1993 has steadily increased by about $1 million each year. In 2012, the tax resulted in $17.5 million added to county coffers.
Of that $17.5 million, the county spent $9.1 million on emergency medical services.
That total is the cost to run 10 medic units throughout the county. It also includes small contributions to local EMS providers. The rest of the money went into the county's general fund.
Although Delaware and the townships do receive some funding, it isn't enough, said Liberty Township Trustee Curt Sybert. Liberty Township, which provides EMS to the Columbus Zoo and its projected 2.5 million visitors in 2013, received just $231,509 from the county's EMS fund in 2012.
"This has been an issue of fairness," said Sybert, who noted the funding structure has been an issue for years but has come to light recently because of failed levies in Liberty and Orange townships.
The proposed plan suggests the county restructure the funding so the amount each municipality receives is based on geography and population.
"Populated areas are paying most of that sales tax, so the populated areas should be benefiting from that sales tax," Gerber said.
He said residents in municipalities that provide EMS actually are paying twice for the services, because they likely pay the sales tax in addition to the property-tax levies that fund local EMS services.
Berlin Township leaders spoke out at the commissioners meeting with concerns about the proposal.
The township is one of seven in the county that have opted to contract with the county to provide EMS to residents as opposed to providing their own services.
Berlin Township Trustee Ron Bullard said the county service has been "excellent" and he doesn't want to see it decline in the case that more-populous municipalities get extra dollars and attention.
Township Fire Chief William A. Bechstein also noted every municipality should be a part of possible negotiations, not just those that provide EMS.
"We're ready to work with you and move forward to achieve a solution," Orange Township Trustee Rob Quigley told the commissioners. He suggested not just holding working sessions with the commissioners, but also creating a task force that would be composed of all county stakeholders and possibly residents.
Commissioner Dennis Stapleton said he would support a task force, but wishes the issue had been quashed in 1972.
"I wish we could go back," he said, pointing out the Berlin Township model that uses local fire and county EMS is ideal. " ... We didn't transition to that and now the levies have failed and they're looking to us because they can't keep providing the same services, and so we are in this huge dilemma."
Delaware and Liberty Township are the only municipalities that offered EMS prior to the founding of the county EMS in 1972.
Commissioner Ken O'Brien said the current system of contracting to townships and cities without EMS works well, and making any changes that would have the county instead contract with townships to provide EMS would cause it to "unravel."
"The only way there would be services provided by the county and the townships is to get rid of the county EMS," he added.
Commissioner Gary Merrell said he doesn't know yet what the outcome of negotiations will be, but he fully intends to work with the townships and Delaware to come to a resolution.
"I take this project very seriously," Merrell said. "My project for the next year is I'd love to see this project resolved."