Laurens County doesn't need tax increase
So often government (at all levels) resorts to increasing taxes and taking more of your hard earned money and property.
While tax increases may be the easiest solution for government, taking more of your money doesn't make life easier for you, your family or especially if you're trying to run a business. While there definitely was some truth to what Will Rogers said about "death and taxes," Laurens County does not have to raise property taxes in FY2017 and here's why...
When I ran for Laurens County Council, I made a promise to voters that I would always work for more accountability with taxpayer resources, finding the best solutions to help the people of our county.
The good news is that FY2017 is looking closer to a balanced budget with only $150,000 in the red compared to previous recent years with over $700,000 in the red, but the bad news is that there's been a proposed additional 4 mills ($679,600) of tax in order to increase pay by $.50 per hour for every employee in the county.
Laurens County Council does recognize that we must find ways to remain competitive, keeping the burden of property taxes and fees low. While some in government believe that raising taxes is the only option, I beg to differ and ask that we consider and look at proactive solutions like EMS partnerships and privatization in order to make services even better and more cost effective.
Emergency Medical Service privatization is a trend that has enabled communities like Laurens County with big rural areas (724 sq miles) and small populations (66,500), the opportunity to save more lives and reach those that are in rural areas more quickly.
I have received calls from taxpayers in western Laurens County that have had 30-/+ minute response times, this is due to the fact that current Medic stations are posted in more populated areas of Laurens County.
There's also the issues like employee retention that has been difficult in Laurens County. In 2015, employee retention was around 45%. Employees that were lost cited both long hour shifts (24hr shifts) and low pay as reasons for leaving. One former paramedic with our county said that he "feared for the safety of patients, having been up for almost 24 hours with no sleep...".
Laurens County has had a difficult time addressing both the shift issues and keeping wages competitive. Currently, LCEMS has a $3.4 Million budget and has built in overtime of $480,000, meaning LCEMS has the biggest overtime budget in the county. Our current medic stations (four) are old and definitely in need of repair or completely building new stations, this would mean additional costs to taxpayers.
So, what options does Laurens County have to seriously addressing the issues we face in a cost effective manner?
When I started studying this issue, I didn't realize that there were so many types of models for EMS, but there is LOTS of options. They include hospital managed EMS, private for profit EMS, private non-profit EMS, Fire service based EMS, public EMS and public/private blends of EMS. The three that are widely used in South Carolina and in the upstate are hospital based EMS, private (for and non-profit) EMS and public EMS.
Our current system is public EMS; which has proven to be the most costly ($51 per capita) and difficult to maintain for counties with very limited resources like ours.
The first step is for Laurens County Council to call for proposals with an RFP (Request for Proposals) from private EMS companies and any possible partners (such as hospitals) that are interested in helping and offering solutions. Many counties in the upstate and across South Carolina have formed partnerships with hospitals and EMS companies that have proven to be beneficial to all involved. After conducting a study with all counties in the upstate, I have found what works and what doesn't work.
Take Anderson County as an example, Anderson County has seven contracts currently with various EMS companies and has lowered their call times and also lowered the cost of EMS to $22 per capita.
Newberry County and Spartanburg County have kept their call times low and the cost per capita also very competitive with hospital managed EMS contracts.
Private EMS services in Laurens County have been able to pay employees an average of $3.50 more per hour than Laurens County. They also have 12 hour shift options that employees prefer to the current 24 hour shifts that Laurens County medics and paramedics have.
Private EMS companies also can offer very competitive benefits and insurance. One option when considering outsourcing EMS is to work an agreement so that the 51 county employees can re-apply with the contracted EMS provider. This in turn would free up resources in the county and allow better service.
The private EMS services run very competitively across many counties and have access to areas which allow additional resources such as contracts with retirement homes, running emergent and non-emergent calls, etc. All of this helps to keep costs low so that costs are dispersed, which both the employees and taxpayers can benefit from.
Currently, our medic stations are all second-hand used buildings and in need of repairs. EMS partnerships and privatization could allow us to either lease the stations to a private company or allow them to build and manage their own new stations.
The fact of the matter is that Abbeville, Laurens and Union (all of which have experienced declining population issues in recent years) have paid the highest per capita price for EMS in the upstate and all three of those counties have maintained in house public EMS.
In order to have better service across our county and seriously address the budget issues that we face, we must explore long term proactive solutions. I am asking Laurens County to request proposals to better our EMS service and keep Laurens County competitive.
The fact of the matter is that Laurens County does not have to raise your property taxes to keep local government competitive.
(Stewart Jones represents Laurens County Council, District 4.