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Task Force ‘like a boat without a rudder’

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By Tracy Harris

After three meetings, members of the Fire and EMS Task Force remain unsure of their purpose.

“We’re like a boat without a rudder,” said committee member Albert Harrison. 

Judge-Executive David Voegele formed the committee in July and tasked members with determining if the current fire and EMS models are the most effective and efficient.

Six fire departments operate in Oldham County: Ballardsville, La Grange, North Oldham, Pewee Valley, South Oldham and Westport. Most departments are a combination of paid and volunteer staff, although Pewee Valley and Westport are entirely volunteer.

The fire departments also have trained emergency medical technicians who can respond to EMS runs.

The committee is supposed to make a recommendation about fire and EMS districts, but has no deadline.

Harrison said without structure he doesn’t know how the task force will be effective. After three meetings there is still no finalized mission statement, he said.

Currently, committee members are gathering data to assess current financial and demographic situations.

Harrison, who has more than 30 years experience as a land surveyor, created several maps showing station locations and district boundaries.

Committee members discussed those maps in last week’s meeting, as committee members agreed current and proposed station locations provide coverage to the entire county. 

Harrison designed the maps to show areas covered by each station, including Oldham’s six fire districts and the Worthington district in Jefferson County.

Subcommittees have also compiled information about 2012 budgets and taxing district formation.

The committee met with consultant Bill Kramer, who offered to attend a few meetings pro bono to see if his company’s services might be needed.

Kramer and Associates is a fire service consulting firm that helps with consolidations, fire chief selections, service analysis, fire protection needs for new subdivisions and other issues.

Kramer met with Voegele prior to the meeting, but committee chair Tom Davisson said he had just learned Kramer would be at the meeting the day before. 

Committee member David Such asked Kramer how often he determined a merger wasn’t the best option — Kramer said about half the time. 

And, he said, a merger wouldn’t save as much money as people think.

“It’s more about efficiency,” he said.

Kramer added there are different levels of merger — but that Oldham County is “doing all the good things” already. 

Ballardsville Fire Chief Steve Fante said if that is the case, there are really only two options: merge entirely or leave the system as it is.

But, it remains unclear if county government could legally merge the departments.

According to County Attorney John Carter, a judge-executive, with fiscal court’s approval, can create, abolish or combine any special taxing district as long as the judge-executive and fiscal court originally created it.

But, court orders created the fire districts — not fiscal court, Fante said.

Davisson said the committee has only focused on fire departments so far, but EMS is also part of the discussion. 

Voegele created the task force after several years of money management issues at Oldham County EMS.

Audits from fiscal years 2009 and 2010 both show deficits of revenue over expenses, totaling over $30,000 in 2009 and $47,000 in 2010.

County officials scrapped plans for a $1.5 million new facility after realizing the budget shortfalls.

In August, fiscal court approved a bailout of up to $850,000 to meet OCEMS expenses until the organization received tax revenue in November. In 2010, fiscal court approved a similar loan of $165,000.

Since 2008, there have been two directors and an interim director at OCEMS. This year, Voegele asked longtime board chair David Thompson to resign and appointed new board members to oversee finances. Currently, Todd Early and Keith Smith manage OCEMS under the guidance of consultant Jim Carman.

The search continues for a permanent director.

Since both OCEMS and fire departments respond to EMS runs, there is some duplication of service between the organizations.

State law permits fiscal court to put dissolving the EMS taxing district on the election ballot. A majority vote in favor would dissolve the district as it now exists, Carter said.

And, Carter added, state law give fire districts authorization to assume emergency ambulance service responsibilities if the EMS taxing district was abolished.

The only question unanswered, according to Carter, is if the judge-executive can dissolve or merge EMS or fire districts not created by that office.

Answering that question would require either a declaratory judgement action in Oldham circuit court or seeking an attorney general’s opinion.

The task force did not decide to take either action at the meeting.

Courtney Baxter, a community member of the committee who is also an attorney, said the essential question is what the legal parameters are for the committee.

“There are a whole lot of issues that have to be looked at by a legal counsel,” she said.

Without those answers, the committee could spend a lot of time working on a recommendation that couldn’t be implemented, she said.

Several committee members also reiterated their opinion that Worthington Fire Department should be included in the committee. Even though it is located in Jefferson County, Worthington responds to Oldham County addresses, including the City of Orchard Grass Hills, Glen Oaks and Moser Farms. Stations typically cover locations within a five-mile driving distance.

The main entrance to Glen Oaks subdivision is within only Worthington’s five-mile radius. It will remain that way even once the proposed South Oldham Fire Station 2 is constructed.

Worthington Fire Chief Albert Tronzo attended the meeting as an observer.

Also missing from the committee is a representative from the Countryside/River Bluff taxing district.

The district actually contracts to North Oldham Fire and Harrods Creek and does not have its own station.

Phil Shad attended the meeting as a representative of the Countryside/River Bluff fire protection district and said he believed the district should have a representative on the committee.

“We were created with the intent to eventually merge with someone else,” he said. 

But, the district currently contracts with both North Oldham and Harrods Creek because it allows homeowners to take advantage of Harrods Creek’s lower insurance rating.

Harrison made motions to include both Worthington and Countryside/River Bluff representatives on the board.

Two committee members, Such and Goshen Mayor Bob Thacker, voted against the motion. Davisson said he would request approval from Voegele about the addition. Voegele chose the committee’s original members.

The committee voted to cancel its Dec. 27 meeting. The next meeting will be Jan. 24.