New budget to prevent outsourcing of Cleburne County EMS
by Rachael Griffin
HEFLIN — The Cleburne County Hospital Board on Thursday approved a new six-month budget for the Cleburne County Emergency Medical Services, a spending plan written at the last minute to keep the service running.

Nearly 100 Cleburne County residents crowded into a cafeteria at the Cleburne County Nursing Home to hear the board’s proposed new plan. Many residents were concerned that the board would vote to cut the Cleburne EMS services in favor of hiring a private company. Instead, the board approved a budget written by its newest member that slashed nearly $80,000 in expenses but keeps all the employees.

Cleburne’s previous EMS budget has been under scrutiny by members of the board for nearly a year. Board chairman Bill Cleino said the budget was “maxed out fulfilling requests to EMS.”

“We want to preemptively do something before we have a crisis,” Cleino said.

The board hired Ralph Mitchell, a managing partner of Administrative Services LLC, in March 2012 to look for ways to improve the budget and the services offered by the Cleburne County EMS. Mitchell told the room that he met with the board and Cleburne County EMS director Keith Roberts, and made as many budget cuts as they thought possible. Even with the cuts, Mitchell predicted, the board would be out of money in less than three years.

In 2012, Cleburne EMS spent $890,000, board members said. Of that budget, $714,000 was paid to EMS employees. The plan approved Thursday would reduce spending by approximately 9 percent.

Mitchell suggested a private company be hired to run the service and the board made contact with Northstar Paramedic Services, a Tuscaloosa-based company, which had representatives at the meeting to present their proposal.

Those representatives were never heard once new board member Tracy Lambert took the floor with his own budget proposal.

Lambert, a former Cleburne County commissioner, said it took him four days to create the budget he presented to the board. His budget eliminates unauthorized overtime and cuts the number of vacation days EMS employees are given based on how many years they’ve been working for the service.

Lambert’s budget is expected to save Cleburne EMS $80,000 without having to lay off any of its employees. The budget was approved after seven of the eight board members voted for it to pass.

“I was not for outsourcing, at least without looking at our options. That’s why I decided to bunker down and try to provide a viable option that could possibly save it,” Lambert said.

Lambert said he’s had success with budgets he’s proposed as a county commissioner and hopes to have the same success as a hospital board member.

“It’s only fair to our taxpayers if we get the best deal and we determine what we want,” Lambert said. “We work for the taxpayers.”

Roberts said his goal when he took over as EMS director three years ago was to make Cleburne EMS a career destination for his paramedics and EMT’s. The director said he quickly learned he would be faced with the challenge of keeping Cleburne EMS afloat.

“I’m having trouble maintaining what I have. That’s providing two (Advanced Life Support) trucks around the clock,” Roberts said. “We’re struggling more every year.”

Roberts said he didn’t agree with the board when they began to consider outsourcing the service to Northstar.

“A for-profit company will not provide the same level of care and same amount of care,” Roberts said.

Roberts said every employee at Cleburne EMS has given concessions, including one employee who gave up $5,000 from his monthly paycheck.

“We’re doing our part. We’re doing all we can personally,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he’s encouraged by Lambert’s plan and he’s hoping this can be a new beginning for Cleburne EMS.

Jeremy Hoffman, an advanced emergency medical technician at Cleburne EMS, said his biggest fear with a proposal from another company was lack of service for the county and putting residents’ lives in jeopardy. He also said he was unsure whether he would be able to keep his job under potential new management.

“I understood a while back that changes would have to be made. I’ll stand behind the changes and hope it’s in the best interest of the community,” Hoffman said.

Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.

© 2013