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In shadow of 2023 elections, jury faces $1 million EMS, rescue bill

Wednesday, August 24, 2022
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It seems the Lincoln Parish Police Jury is going to have to find $1 million to pay for ambulance and rescue service outside the Ruston city limits for 2023.

Now that the original plan of tacking a fee onto utility bills is dead, the jury seems to have three options to do find the funds: use its American Rescue Plan Act money for as far as that will go, ask rural voters to pass a tax, or ask voters parishwide to unlock the money the jury received 26 years ago from the sale of Lincoln General Hospital.

On a plate where nothing is 100% palatable, freeing the hospital money seems a reasonable option. But that wouldn’t be a quick process, nor is there any guarantee voters would agree — though there’s probably a better chance they would agree to that than to a new tax.

Plus there are legal questions to be grappled with.

When parish voters approved selling the hospital in 1996, they locked the $10 million the jury received into a trust fund, with the annual interest available for the parish’s use. No stipulations were put on how the jury could spend the interest, which in 2021 was $75,000.

In 2018, the jury spent almost $60,000 of the money on bridge replacement. In 2023, it proposes to use $20,030 to help fund other agencies, mostly the public health unit.

Obviously, jurors would have to do some budget reprioritizing if voters were asked to free the $10 million and did so. But everything has consequences.

Even if the jury doesn’t go past 2023 with the EMS and rescue proposals now on the table, it’s still going to have to pay somebody for the services every year. In budget language, the services are a recurring expense and demand a recurring revenue stream.

True enough, the $10 million is finite. Yet it would literally buy time — presuming the jury didn’t wait until half past the last minute to act, or bristle up and back itself into another high-priced corner like it is now.

None of this had to happen.

Clearly, the issue is not about cost, if it ever was. Nobody on the Ambulance Service Committee batted an eye last week when it learned a three- year deal for rescue from the Lincoln Parish Fire Protection District will cost $2 million, not counting another half-million for a new rescue truck.

That’s anywhere from three to roughly 16 times more than the jury would have paid for both ambulance and rescue service for the same period of time had it taken either of two previous offers made by the city of Ruston before Ruston took itself out of the running.

One of those offers, one for $120,000 annually plus a 5% increase, never got past Jury President Richard Durrett and Vice President Milton Melton. Now, Durrett, who’s on the Ambulance Service Committee, will presumably vote on the proposals in front of the committee, both of which financially benefit the fire district, on whose board he also sits.

Plus, he’s one of two members of the ambulance panel’s contract subcommittee – the group that’s vetting the offers. And he was given this task by the chairman whom he appointed to the ambulance committee in the first place.

Unless something else pops up, the committee will likely recommend, and the jury will be forced to take, the offers they have. There are no private rescue agencies in the area, so the fire district is it. And Pafford EMS is the sole ambulance bidder.

There’s no reason to believe either agency will do less than its best.

But the optics of the situation that’s gone on now for 15 months look bad.

Blaming the city of Ruston for the jury facing a $1 million bill for which it has no funding scheme, won’t wash.

Time is on no one’s side. The current contract with the city for EMS and rescue expires at midnight Dec. 31.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that police jury elections are next year.

Nancy Bergeron is a reporter for the Daily Leader. She covers the city of Ruston. She can be reached by email at nancy@ rustonleader. com.