Delaware County's fire and emergency services are widely considered to be high-quality and innovative.

Delaware County's fire and emergency services are widely considered to be high-quality and innovative.

With 12 local fire departments, six providing ambulance service, along with the county's own emergency medical services, coverage is extensive and response times lower than national averages.

Some might say the network of care is too extensive.

An analysis released last week by County Commissioner Jeff Benton aims to reduce overlap and redundancy, maintain quality and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

"Universally, I hear very consistent compliments about EMS, whether provided by the county or the townships. It wasn't a question of quality of service or coverage," said Benton, a CPA and former chief financial officer at a bank. "I don't think (residents) really care what name is on the side of the ambulance."

Benton recommended a single countywide EMS and eliminating ambulance service currently provided by Concord, Genoa, Harlem, Liberty and Orange townships, along with the city of Delaware.

That would cost $24.3 million and save taxpayers at least $17 million, according to Benton's study.

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Delaware County's EMS operation has been funded for more than 40 years by a half-percent sales tax, from which it receives about $10 million. The balance of that tax -- $11 million -- is used for county 911 funding and the sheriff's office.

A 1971 tax deal reimbursed the city of Delaware and Liberty Township, which, at the time, also provided EMS.

But over the years, other townships began providing EMS and also sought reimbursements, requests denied by commissioners. Most recently, some townships providing EMS have sought almost $7 million annually from the county, prompting Benton to study the issue.

Benton concluded that "it is very clear that the most cost-effective and efficient way to provide fire and EMS services ... (is to) adopt true countywide EMS through (Delaware County EMS) and restructure the EMS fire districts to be similar to the non-EMS fire districts in the county."

That proposal has critics, however.

Porter Welch, a Genoa Township resident and fire chief in Scioto Township in Pickaway County, appreciates the redundancy of a county-township system. He said he knows the frustration of paying both sales and property taxes to have it.

"I like to think of the fire and EMS protection as an insurance policy," Welch said. "If the (county) fire department is tied up on a fire run, then there is more than one option for help. I want an ambulance at my house when I ask for it in a timely fashion.

"If a community is willing to pay for a service, then the elected officials should provide that service. ... Ultimately this comes down to, essentially, do the residents want to pay twice for the service?"

Many local fire chiefs and administrators say the issue is complicated and will take time to evaluate. The majority of emergency runs in the county are health-related, such as for heart attacks or car crashes, not fires. Eliminating ambulance runs would mean lots of idle time at stations or job cuts.

Orange Township Trustee Rob Quigley wants to know, "What do we do with all those positions?"

Fellow Trustee Lisa Knapp said, "I think if it's not broken, don't fix it. I don't see any reason why we would change it. No one's complaining about the cost of care or anything else."

Local services, Knapp said, "provide a sense of community and a feeling of belonging."

Matt Huffman, Liberty Township administrator, said, "I would think our residents would want the best service available to them. The question is, can they get that from the county?"

Welch, as a fire chief, said the county is capable of countywide EMS with proper funding.

"If the county is willing to dedicate the resources to ensure an adequate response time, then I think Delaware County could do it," he said. "Are they willing to put another six or seven ambulances on the road to pick up the slack if the other districts stop doing EMS transports?"

Delaware County EMS Chief Mike Schuiling said he thinks it's "very feasible," adding he doesn't think "fire departments should be encumbered by EMS when EMS is already being provided by the county."

Benton and the others agreed his report is just the beginning of a long discussion.

dnarciso@dispatch.com

@DeanNarciso