Allie Colosky
The Bulletin

Jefferson County officials are looking into merging the county’s emergency medical services with the fire department.

County commissioners and Madras city councilors approved funding a study of the feasibility of such a merger in February.

The contract for the study was awarded to Matrix Consulting Group earlier this month. The study will analyze merging the Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services District and the Rural Fire District and what services would look like if the districts merged, said John Curnutt, Jefferson County EMS District board chairman.

“Will it be better to leave well enough alone with more efficient cooperation?” he said. “Or maybe some sort of joining the two agencies with one (agency) head or two. I will say that we are wide open to the possibilities of what this will say.”

The consolidation feasibility study is the first official step after a long-running discussion in Jefferson County about various ways of melding the two districts, Curnutt said.

The Jefferson County Commission will pay $22,510 of the total $49,500 for the study, with the city of Madras funding $20,000. The fire district will contribute $6,990. The EMS district did not have the available funds to contribute, said Jeff Rasmussen, county administrative officer.

An informal group of county residents broached the subject in 2003, but the results of their original unofficial survey lacked objectivity, said Chief Mike Lepin of Jefferson County EMS.

“We are looking at the official study with very open minds,” he said. “There were politics played in the past but we are looking at this as an opportunity to find better ways to manage our districts. (Both districts) get along really well.”

Merging the departments would have its pros and cons, including the financial cost of creating one new district.

Additional employees would benefit emergency medical services because the majority of firefighters have training in both fire management and medical services. More people to make medical transports could bring in more revenue to an already struggling system, Lepin said.

According to an audit report from January, the EMS district reported a net loss of $547,284 last year, compared to $159,602 in fiscal year 2016. In addition, the district paid more than $100,000 over its budget for wages. The district recorded $718,652 in cash at the start of the fiscal year and closed out with only $132,491.

The net loss can be attributed to the purchase of two new ambulances and necessary building renovations, Lepin said.

The EMS district is entirely fee-based. Last year, it put a ballot measure before voters that would have created a permanent tax base to help fund services, but it was rejected by a 2-1 margin.

“We are having to be creative with how we are bringing money in,” Lepin said.

To help generate more revenue, the district has implemented more contracts for critical care transports and billing services for outside parties such as the Warm Springs Fire and Safety Department. It also offers to serve on standby for events such as rodeos and sporting events.

“That’s all still very seasonal, though,” Lepin said.

In the event of a merger, officials would also have to address how much of the county’s fire district taxes could be used for emergency medical services.

“It’s a tricky deal because when you pay your taxes for fire services, it only goes to fire suppression and not necessarily EMS,” Lepin said.

While more employees to run medical transports or calls would benefit emergency medical services, merging districts could also cause a problem for medical services in the case of a large fire or car accident, Lepin said.

“If we were to merge, it could help the fire department because the culture of volunteering has gone down,” he said. “So this could bring more manpower to fight fire and more people can staff ambulances for more calls. But it could also spread emergency services very thin during the summer in the event of a big fire. It could suck up our resources.”

The EMS district already offers 24/7 coverage, Lepin said. The fire district currently employs six full-time employees and is only staffed Monday through Friday. The remaining firefighters are volunteers who respond to calls after business hours.

“This is an important issue,” said Mike Ahern, Jefferson County commissioner. “This study will show what does well and what doesn’t do well. We all have a common mission and this is finding out what is best for the people we serve.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829, acolosky@bendbulletin.com

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