By MARGARET A. THOMPSON
NEWTON TOWNSHIP - Fire board members added a wrinkle to the upcoming EMS levy, saying that if the issue does not pass in November, not only will EMS be crippled, but fire coverage will be severely limited and fall into purely on-call volunteer coverage.
"It sounds like your EMS levy is a fire levy in disguise," former Newton Falls mayor Pat Layshock said. "As a lifelong resident, no one's ever told me that you're going to need to reduce the staffing levels for the fire (department, if the levy fails)."
Layshock was among about 16 residents who attended the Newton Falls Joint Fire District meeting Tuesday evening. Many listened in and several posed questions to the board about the 2.5-mill EMS levy on the November ballot and about a recently leaked proposal from private ambulance service Life Fleet.
The levy would cost about $87 a year for the owner of a village or township home with a valuation of $100,000. It would generate about $315,000 annually for the district - enough to staff the station with at least two responders on each shift, with money left over to update equipment.
On the other hand, the proposal from Life Fleet promises 24/7 coverage to the township and village, with services being paid only by citizens being transported, not by the communities.
In a Tribune Chronicle story published Sunday, a levy official said the proposal was unsolicited, and that the fire board had not considered a private ambulance company taking over EMS for the area, but would look into it if the levy fails.
On Tuesday, David Comstock, attorney for the fire board, said the situation is more complicated than that. "The point I'm trying to make is that Life Fleet will not provide staffing for fires, just EMS."
Where the connection with fire coverage comes into play is in the overlap of staffing in the district between firefighters and EMT / paramedics.
"They are cross-trained, which means if there's an EMS call, we go on an EMS call; if there's a fire call, we go on a fire call," fire Chief Richard Bauman said.
Prior to the institution of EMS in 2006, the fire department had been volunteer-based. When local funeral homes decided to stop providing ambulance services, the district picked it up.
Now if they levy fails, the department may have to downgrade into a volunteer department again, Fiscal Officer Joe Sosnowski said.
"We do not have enough money to staff firemen on duty without this new levy," Sosnowski said. "There is a clear correlation between this levy and the fire coverage."
The district's funding currently comes from a 1-mil levy which brings in about $100,000; contracts with the township and village for fire services, which generates about $100,000; and ambulance billings, which Bauman said cannot be increased.
Even if the levy fails and money being used now on EMS services is redirected to the fire services, Sosnowski said it would not be enough to keep the fire department running as is.
"The total coming in is not enough to run the staffing now," Sosnowski said.
Board members said they would like to hold a larger public meeting to inform residents about the levy versus the use of a private ambulance company.
"There are pros and cons to both options and I think what we need to do is get that information out there so that the public can make a decision," Comstock said.