Commissioners deny funding for ambulance service in 2021

County budget passes with no changes

Despite a recommendation to provide the requested funding to Christensen Ambulance Service by a member of the special committee which had been set up for the purpose of confidentially reviewing the private business’ financial information, Day County Commissioners moved at their meeting Sept. 22 to approve the 2021 budget with funding for the ambulance at zero.

Christensen Ambulance Service owner Mark Christensen said to the commissioners, “You guys sat there and pick me apart, this has been going on since June 1. I have to jump through circles. You don’t worry about the years we put in and the stress on this crew and now with Corona? You’re out of your minds... You don’t want (the ambulance), that’s fine. You’ll be the first county in the state to not have an ambulance service come the first of January. That’s the long and the short of it.”

Don Mahlen, a community member who had been appointed to serve on the committee, reported that three of the five members met to review the business’ financial information. Besides himself, the other two members who met were Webster Mayor Mike Grosek and Sanford Webster Medical Center CEO Isaac Gerdes.

“The committee recommendation is that the county continue to fund and support the ambulance service in the budget,” Mahlen said. “We were asked to give you a recommendation, so we did.”

Commissioners Derek Sinner and Linda Walters were to serve on the committee but left the meeting before reviewing the business financials because they did not sign the confidentiality agreement. They were advised by Day County State’s Attorney Danny Smeins not to do so. That agreement, which had been prepared by the Christensen’s legal council, included a clause that held signers personally liable for any “irreparable harm” caused to Christensen Ambulance Service if any information were leaked. Smeins said the agreement opened any committee member up to financial exposure and that he had serious questions if the commissioners would be protected by any county liability insurance.

Walters said her concerns about signing the agreement were being held personally responsible for information being leaked and not being able to discuss anything she learned with the other commissioners.

“Now you’ve locked the door for me. I can’t even say to them, ‘Gee, Mark lost $300,000 last year,’ or ‘Gee, Mark made $300,000.’ I can’t say anything,” she said. “Executive session can be used to negotiate a contract, but we’re not negotiating a contract. We have a contract in force and there’s the difference. This one’s already in force and it’s been breached.”

The contract Walters was referring to is the one between Christensen and the county which states the business is to provide financial documents to allow the commissioners to determine the level of need for ongoing financial support, which was not done. Walters said, technically, she didn’t know why the county continued to send a check since the contract had been breached. Christensen Ambulance Service was subsidized $39,000 in the 2020 budget. Their request of the 2021 budget was for $55,500.

“We aren’t negotiating a new contract. We’re trying to make him live up to the contract we already have,” Walters said.

Mark Christensen said he admitted to signing the contract last December in order to receive funds in 2020 but had brought up concerns with Smeins over the verbiage. He said he and Smeins had a “gentleman’s agreement” that “probably this would never happen... I went ahead and signed it to keep the ambulance service going for this community.”

Smeins said the language in the contract has been basically the same since the beginning although Christensen maintained that it changed “drastically” about five years ago.

Rural resident Greg Pesall asked about comparing the level Day County subsidizes the ambulance to other counties in the state. Commissioners responded there are different ways in which ambulances are funded. Pesall acknowledged some counties may have a larger tax base than Day County and that all counties are different.

“The county has to balance their budget, that’s by law, and they’ve always balanced their budget,” Smeins said. “But what people don’t realize is that last year, to balance the budget, the county spent $800,000 of it’s reserves to balance that budget. Now they’re spending on the budget that’s before them a million dollars in cash in reserve. That’s a finite amount of money that they are spending that they do not bring in on revenues. That can’t go on indefinitely.”

He also said the commissioners don’t have total discretion over all of the county’s spending due to state mandates.

Day County Commissioner Frank James asked Mahlen how the committee addressed the request for the city and hospital to help fund the ambulance and he said they didn’t go there.

“I guess my question is why?” James asked. “That was a simple request, that you as a community come up with a solution. It seemed like you would want to address that.”

Mahlen said, “I don’t think the City of Webster right now is prepared to enter into the ambulance service because they haven’t had much discussion on that and from what I hear, I don’t think Sanford is ready to do that either. That’s kind of the end of the conversation, if both of them say ‘we’re not interested in anything right now,’ how much further can you take it?”

James said he thought it made more sense for the city, which he reasoned receives sales tax whereas the county doesn’t, to help fund the ambulance since there is a greater need within city limits for an ambulance. “So why doesn’t the city and the hospital step forward and provide some leadership?” he asked.

Mahlen said it’s hard to say who should take the lead on this issue although he felt the county was the logical place to start since even city-dwellers pay taxes to the county.

“But you realize the greater majority of what you pay for taxes goes to the school,” James said. “What the county gets is just over three mills. So what you pay for the county is not a tremendous amount.” James added, there are townships in the county that pay more in taxes to the county than the City of Webster does. He said, “I’m just confused why the city doesn’t want to step forward when we’ve got these townships that are paying more based on the value of their property.”

“I don’t think you have time, at this stage in the game, to push it off on someone else,” Mahlen said.

Resident Glenn Gebur said, “You’re (allowing the sheriff) to go to the cities with no cost to the taxpayers, outside of what we pay in taxes, so why aren’t we doing the same for the ambulance?”

Gebur said it’s more convenient for a family member to take someone to the hospital while living in town but said, “If I’m living 20 miles out of town, who’s going to come get me if I’m out there by myself? We’re going to lose that.”

“The question is whether the county funding is necessary,” Smeins said. Smeins said the county was not interested in going in competition with Christensen Ambulance but added, “It’s a very unique situation that a private business is getting direct payment from a county without any oversight, essentially. We don’t run his business, we don’t tell him how to run his business, he’s completely independent of the county. I don’t think it’s entirely a county responsibility. Given the fact that you have a situation where a private ambulance and the county started to talk about how we’re going to address from a public standpoint an ambulance service, Mark has to say I’m done and the problem’s going to be someone else’s.”

Smeins also said he didn’t think it was the county’s responsibility to solve the ambulance funding problem. Resident Jim Walter said he disagreed. Walter said he had surveyed 351 people across the county and claimed 98 percent said they’d be in favor of giving $9 per person per year, the amount he said the subsidy broke down to based on the county’s population, in support of keeping an ambulance service in Day County. “Right now, you’re gambling that he isn’t going to go away and I think you’re going to lose that gamble,” Walter said.