County leaders voted Tuesday night to allocate $450,000 from the Benton County Road Department to help fund ambulance service to rural areas of the county. It heads to the Quorum Court for a vote on Feb. 27 at 6 p.m.
Benton County Finance Committee members in a special meeting voted to redirect $450,000 that would have been spent on asphalt line items. That amount, along with an additional $250,000, will be used to ensure ambulance service will continue to unincorporated areas of the county, said Marshall Watson, the county’s administrator for public safety.
County officials do not yet know where the additional $250,000 will come from, he said.
The money redirected from the road department may cause the county’s road construction schedule to be altered.
"People in the county want, deserve and should have ambulance service but they also want their roads fixed," said Benton County Judge Bob Clinard.
Clinard said taking money away from the road department will impact the number of roads that will be paved.
"That would not have been my choice," Clinard said. "I would rather have seen them take the remainder of this year out of reserves until we determine a permanent solution."
The funding changes still need to be approved by the Benton County Quorum Court before they become official. Watson said county administrators are pleased with the plan because it allows the county to keep its reserve funds untouched while providing a service wanted by many county residents.
Watson said after the Quorum Court votes on Feb. 27, the Public Safety Committee will brainstorm on a permanent solution.
"We'll basically re-evaluate the entire process and start from scratch," Watson said. "Do we continue to utilize existing providers? Do we look at a county run EMS agency or some alternative such as a private or non-profit ambulance agency? We'll also be looking at funding mechanisms to sustain that in the long-term interest."
Watson estimates that by 2015, EMS will respond to about 2,100 calls and transport about 1,700 patients to the hospital.
Voters rejected a measure last week that would have levied an $85 annual fee on about 20,000 rural residents of Benton County to pay for service calls to unincorporated areas. The measure failed 2,346 votes (67 percent) to 1,134 (33 percent).
Some emergency crews had warned they could have to cut off some rural areas if the proposed ambulance fee did not pass.
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 said it’s just not enough to keep the rural service going.
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.
Emergency crews in Siloam Springs, one of the seven providers in the county, said before the vote that they were prepared to cease EMS services to unincorporated areas, according to the city.
The city’s Board of Directors passed a resolution to discontinue service to unincorporated parts of Benton County if the reimbursement is not met.
If the public vote had passed, Clinard said the annual fee would have gone into effect this year.