UNION COUNTY — The process of preparing the county government to take full responsibility for the operation and funding of the Union County EMS continued Thursday but not without dissension among the members of Union County Council.
Council voted 4-3 Thursday to approve third and final reading of the $15,038,122 budget for fiscal 2015-2016 and also voted 4-3 to approve third and final reading of an ordinance setting fees to help fund the operations of the Union County EMS.
Voting yes in both instances were council members Chump Hanvey, Ben Ivey, and Kacie Petrie. Voting no in both instances were council members Tommy Ford, Joan Little, and Ralph Tucker. Supervisor Frank Hart cast the tie-breaking vote in both instances.
The cause of the split on council was the fees which the ordinance levies on residences and businesses to generate revenue to fund the EMS. Those fees include:
• Public Safety Fee in the amount of “$50 to be charged uniformly on commercial properties and $25 to be charged uniformly on residential properties in the County. The County Auditor is directed to annually add the uniform charge of said Public Safety Fee on all commercial and residential properties carried on the property tax rolls of the County. The owner of such property shall be subject to and required to pay the Public Safety Fee, in addition to any other fees or taxes as required by law. The Public Safety Fee shall be collected at the same time as ad valorem taxes are collected on real property in the County.”
• Road User Fee “in the amount of $15 to be charged uniformly on commercial and personal motorized vehicles in the County. The County Auditor is directed to add the uniform charge of said Road User Fee on all commercial and personal motorized vehicles required by the State of South Carolina to be registered and licensed in the County and which are carried on the tax records of the County. The owner of any such motorized vehicle shall be subject to and required to pay the Road User Fee, in addition to any other licensing fees or taxes as required by law. The Road User Fee shall be collected at the same time as personal property taxes are collected on motorized vehicles in the County.”
The ordinance states that “the proceeds from the collection of the Public Safety Fee and the Road User Fee shall be deposited in two separate funds to be administered by the County Supervisor. The funds shall be separate and distinct from the County General fund.”
It further states that the proceeds from the Public Safety Fee and “any investment income earned thereon, must be used solely and exclusively for EMS operations and any public safety-related functions of the County. Public Safety Fee proceeds not used in any fiscal year shall be carried forward and used exclusively for the aforementioned purpose.
The ordinance states that the proceeds from the Road User Fee and “any investment income earned thereon, must be used solely for the construction, improvement and maintenance of County roads, parking lots and related drainage. Road User Fee proceeds not used in any fiscal year shall be carried forward and used exclusively for the immediately aforementioned purpose.”
Hart said he cast the tiebreaker in favor of the ordinance because the fees are needed to help balance the 2015-2016 while funding the operations of the EMS.
“State law requires us to have a balanced budget and the fees will generate the funds for EMS so we can have a balanced budget,” Hart said. “The Public Safety Fee will generate roughly $400,000 and the Road User Fee will generate roughly $400,000. The revenue from the Public Safety Fee will go directly to the EMS while the revenue from the Road User Fee will go to the Public Works Department to free up $400,000 for EMS.”
Hart said that given the budgetary realities it is facing, the county has no choice but to levy the fees.
“I, like all of the council members, do not like to be put in a situation where we have to impose additional fees on the citizens of Union,” Hart said. “However, there was no other option because we have already cut $800,000 and thirteen positions out of the budget. Without the fees we would be facing another $800,000 shortfall.”
Ford, however, said that while he supports balancing the budget and funding EMS, he feels that levying both fees at the same time imposes too much of a burden on the people of Union County.
“We worked out the budget and then they put on these road fees to keep up the ambulance service,” Ford said. “These fees, I’d have went along with one of them, but not both. I tried to get them to separate them, but they said they couldn’t because of the ordinance, so I voted against it because I’d have voted for one of them, but not both.”
Ford said his vote against the ordinance should not be construed as a vote against the EMS.
“They tried to make it look like I’m against the ambulance service, but I’m not,” Ford said. “We’ve got a great ambulance service and we need an ambulance service.”
Ford added that his position reflects the consensus of the people of his district.
“The people of my district, District 3, are opposed to the fee,” Ford said. “I think most would have went along with one of them, but not both of them.”
Ivey said he voted for the ordinance “because of us having to undertake the EMS project. When the EMS comes under county control the county will be responsible for its budget. The only way we can offset and pay for that because we have to have a zero balance budget is to shift it to the residences that will get the $25 fee and the businesses that will get the $50 fee. We’ve got to do what is necessary because we need the EMS.”
Tucker said he voted against the ordinance because he feels many people in the county cannot afford to pay the fees it levies.
“A lot of people can’t afford those fees and I’m just trying to look out after the people who elected me,” Tucker said.
Thursday’s vote was the latest step in a long process that began in April when the Union Hospital District Board of Trustees voted to to approve a resolution authorizing the district’s CEO and the board’s chairman and vice chairman to complete negotiations on a lease and operations transfer agreement with Spartanburg Regional Health System. The resolution states that SRHS has proposed that it take over the operations of the district and build a new health care facility in Union County.
On June 6, 2014, the district filed a Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition in order to seek an “adjustment” of the debts of the the district and its four service areas — Wallace Thomson Hospital, Ellen Sager Nursing Homes, Carolinas Health Associates, and Union County EMS — under the supervision of the Bankruptcy Court. As it is still under the supervision of the Bankruptcy Court, the agreement between the district and SRHS must be submitted to the court for approval.
If the agreement is approved, the proposed take over of the operations of the district by SRHS would proceed along with the construction of the new health care facility.
One thing SRHS will not be taking over the EMS which is currently operated by the hospital district on behalf of the county which provides part of its funding. If the agreement between SRHS and the hospital district is approved by the Bankruptcy Court, the county will assume full responsibility for the operation and funding of the EMS.
To begin preparing for that, Union County Council voted in May to incorporate the EMS into the county system at the beginning of the 2015-2016 fiscal year on July 1.
When it was learned that SRHS would not be taking over the operation of the EMS, Hart told council that if the county took over operation of the EMS and complete responsibility for its funding, it would add $800,000 to the county budget. This amount is included in the 2015-2016 budget and is to be offset with the revenue generated by the fees approved Thursday.