Hernando city officials debated how to finance an additional ambulance and crew for the DeSoto County seat during a three-hour meeting Tuesday night.
For the first time in several years, city taxpayers are facing a tax increase to fund, among other things, a critical need for a new ambulance as well as shoring up salaries for police department personnel and other pressing issues.
The City of Hernando is looking at a proposed budget for fiscal year 2017-18 which has a total projected revenue of $26.9 million, up from the current budget approved last September, which amounted to $25 million.
For the next fiscal year, the ad valorem tax levy could rise by as much as 5.8404 mills, or an increase from a tax millage of 34.925 to 40.7654.
The proposed increase means that city residents would pay more in ad valorem taxes on homes, automobile tags, utilities, business fixtures and equipment and rental property.
A new ambulance will cost the city approximately $190,000 for the new ambulance plus salaries and benefits for three new firefighters and an additional three-person paramedic crew.
Ultimately, that could mean an extra $650,000 cost to the city, but billing revenue for ambulance services or increased ambulance fees could help offset that cost, Joanna Herring, EMS Supervisor, told city officials. All totaled, the cost of ambulance operations and salaries, plus benefits of crews, could top more than $1.2 million.
The City of Hernando presently has two high-mileage backup ambulances and one top-flight ambulance for a city approaching 17,000.
A mutual aid agreement with DeSoto County could provide an additional ambulance, but city officials said a lengthy wait for that ambulance, if that ambulance has been dispatched elsewhere in the county, could cause a delay in that city resident receiving emergency transportation to a hospital.
Ward 4 Alderman Michael McLendon disclosed the existence of an offer by DeSoto County government to partner on the purchase of an ambulance.
"The other option had us going in with the county," McLendon said. "But the citizens of Hernando want an ambulance for their city. Nothing against the county."
City officials said they are concerned about maintaining control of operations for any ambulance, purchased in part, by the county.
An offer was made by DeSoto County to pay half the cost of the city's new ambulance, in addition to locating the ambulance at any of the city's three fire stations. The crew would report to the city's fire chief.
Yet, Herring and City Fire Chief Hubert Jones said they were scared off by that proposal because county officials had the option of renegotiating the agreement after six months to a year.
Control of the ambulance seems to be at the crux of the issue.
"If we had gone in with the county, it would have been a mutual aid (situation) and that (ambulance) could go anywhere in the county," Herring said. "As part of the county's option, six months into the agreement or a year-out, the county wanted to re-negotiate."
Ward 2 Alderman Andrew Miller argued the county's offer not only had merit but could save the city a substantial amount of taxpayer money.
"We could do it cheaper and they (ambulance crew) would report to Chief Jones," Miller said of the county's offer. "I am sure that option would have been a whole lot cheaper than what is before us tonight. They would report to Chief Jones but they just wouldn't be our employees." Miller pointed out the city could manage ambulance operations on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis but after "six new hires" there would not be a cost savings.
Herring voiced her objections to the county ambulance agreement.
"There were a lot of stipulations (to the county's mutual aid agreement)," Herring said.
Herring added that the ambulance service was on track to bring in $400,000 next year.
"We should be able to subsidize half the cost of the new ambulance for our citizens," Herring said.
Ward 3 Alderman Gary Higdon said the purchase of an ambulance was among the most requested items by residents when he visited with them during the spring campaign.
"We have it in here — we serve the people," Higdon said.
Herring acknowledged that on a mutual aid situation, the city ambulance might still have to assist on a county call.
"But it will be at the discretion of the city," Herring said.
In an impromptu appearance, the owner of a private ambulance service, FTS Ambulance Service, located on Motor Scooter Drive in Nesbit, stated that he could dedicate two ambulances to Hernando and would save the city more than $1.2 million.
Jose Oakley said he has a fleet of six ambulances in his fleet and had been able to present a bid that is below Medicare costs.
"I've been here 12 years," Oakley said. "I started business to help the area. They (fire chief and EMS supervisors) are twisting it (discussion). I want the citizens to know what I am able to offer. I would put an ambulance in your fire station. I want it known that I have an ambulance service here and I have offered to have two of our ambulances at the Hernando Fire Station."
Aldermen and Mayor Tom Ferguson took the discussion under advisement.
In other matters, Hernando Police Chief Scott Worsham said his emergency dispatchers are woefully underpaid and his budget includes competitive wages for dispatchers, plus a salary increase for police personnel.
"If we adjust these rates, we're still the lowest (paid) in the county," Worsham said.
Worsham said there had been a 261-percent increase in calls to emergency dispatchers since 2009.
"DeSoto County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state," Worsham said. "We want the best for our community. If we continually pay our public safety officers the lowest in the county, we can't expect to be competitive."
Alderman at-Large W.I. "Doc" Harris said his observation is that city officials have looked the other way for too long instead of gradually bringing salaries up to competitive wages.
"If we're going to keep the officers we have and protect the citizens, we have to pay them," Harris said.
Elsewhere, Parks and Recreation Director Dewayne Williams presented a balanced budget in the amount of $888,705.
McLendon asked if the Friends of Soccer, now Hernando Soccer, might be willing to spend Soccer Foundation money set aside for capital improvements on the mowing of soccer fields.
Williams replied that he didn't think the Hernando Soccer Association wanted to do that.
With only about $200,000 in reserves, Ferguson said the city is struggling this year just to make do.
The city is expected to approve its budget after recessing its meeting to Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. at Hernando City Hall, 475 West Commerce Street in Hernando.
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at email@example.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.