As some Benton County voters get ready to decide whether to fund local ambulance services, emergency crews are warning they could have to cut off some rural areas if the proposed ambulance fee does not pass.
Benton County rural voters are set to decide Feb. 11 whether to pay an $85 annual ambulance fee to fund calls to unincorporated areas. If the vote fails, some cities may stop responding to those areas altogether.
There are seven service providers that provide ambulance services to the unincorporated parts of Benton County. Arkansas state laws say cities can provide services outside of their city limits if there is a contract in place for them to be reimbursed. Over the past three years, the county has paid some money to the cities, but city officials say it's just not enough to keep the rural service going.
"We can not continue to afford to provide that service in the county without payment," said Siloam Springs Fire Chief Greg Neely. "That's in accordance to state statute."
Benton County Judge Bob Clinard said the cost for rural ambulance services in Benton County could reach $1.2 million by 2016. Clinard said to reimburse city providers for the availability of ambulance services, households in unincorporated areas will have to pay an annual $85 fee. Clinard said the fee is based on the estimate for 2016.
"That fee should last several years and cover what the cities and providers want to provide," he said.
About 19,500 unincorporated households will decide whether or not to support the permanent funding mechanism in February.
"If I had the money, I would support it. And if I didn't have it, I'd try and figure out a way to get it," Clinard said. "I would want an ambulance to come if someone in my family was to be hurt."
If the vote fails, Siloam Springs, one of the providers in the county, is prepared to cease EMS services, according to the city.
The Board of Directors passed a resolution to discontinue service to unincorporated parts of Benton County if the reimbursement is not met.
"This is not a bluff," Neely said. "This is not a threat. We just cannot continue to provide the services for free. We will be breaking the law. We will be breaking the bank, if we continue to do it."
Clinard said he hopes the situation does not reach that point.
"I don't make the decisions for those mayors and fire chiefs in the city," he said. "I hope it gets resolved before they have to decide whether or not they are going to pick somebody up."
If the vote passes, Clinard said the annual fee would go into effect this year. People would have until Oct. 15 to pay it.