Paramedic funding a concern for county

Reductions in state funding for paramedics are of increasing concern for county officials as the cost of the programs and needed expansion of service have only risen while county coffers have gotten leaner with less real estate transfer tax to fund the programs.

Sussex County Council President Vance Phillips, at the council’s Tuesday, Feb. 9, meeting, said he would be proposing that the State of Delaware either reconfigure its paramedic funding formulas from a 70/30 county/state split to a 50/50 split or consider changing transfer tax formulas from the current 50/50 split to a 70/30 county/state split, giving the counties the bulk of the transfer tax revenue collected on the sale of real estate.

In a letter Phillips said he, as president of the Tri-County Association, had sent to other TCA members, Phillips said he pointed out “that not only is the transfer tax going down very quickly and paramedic cost going up, we have used transfer tax for other public-safety expenses, including fire companies, state police and local law enforcement.”

“Right now, we’re actually at a deficit,” Phillips emphasized, with “transfer tax not covering the cost of public safety.”

In fact, a comparison of public-safety costs for the county with its transfer-tax revenue for the coming budget year puts the county at a $2 million deficit, he said.

Additionally, Phillips, said, “the State is shifting other costs to us, such as dog control. … There’s a huge deficit occurring and continuing to occur.”

The county has received $3.6 million this year from the state’s 30 percent share on the cost of paramedic services. The county funded $8.7 million. That’s a decrease in the state share of $1.2 million since the 2009 fiscal year alone.

Officials noted on Tuesday that the state had funded 60 percent of the cost of the paramedic service when the program started. That had since dropped to 40 percent, and then to 30 percent last year.

Meanwhile, EMS calls are up about 26 percent from five years ago. The county has added paramedic units over the years to address that growing need, and County Administrator David Baker said Tuesday that further reductions in funding would necessitate cuts in service.

With the potential there for state legislators to cut state funding entirely, Baker said, and 86 percent of the costs of the service being related to personnel, the county would have to look at staffing to control costs, and that could end up meaning the loss of two paramedic units – 25 percent of its active paramedic units. That, Baker said, would mean increased response times and a reduction in new medical technologies.

Baker noted that the paramedic funding comes as part of the state’s Grant in Aid Bill and is therefore not directly a budget recommendation from the governor but a decision made by the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee. The budget currently recommends $41 million in total funding for Grant in Aid, but it is up to the JFC to determine how that funding is allocated.

Additionally, Baker said, many state agencies that have been funded in the state’s operating budget in the past have been asked to request Grant in Aid funding instead this budget year, so there will be more competition for that funding.

Phillips’ suggested reconfiguration of the paramedic funding formula and/or the transfer tax revenue formula are set to be discussed at the next Tri-County Association meeting.

Council looks at state legislative concerns

Also on Feb. 9, county council members received a legislative update from Deputy Administrator Hal Godwin, offering them updates on legislation that had not been adopted in the 2009 legislative session, as well as new legislation that might be up for adoption in 2010.

Among the bills of concern for the county, Godwin said, are:

• House Bill (HB) 26, which Godwin said had changed in nature on the last day of the 2009 session, when an amendment was added in the Senate after the bill’s passage in the House. Godwin said the original bill would have allowed the re-categorization of almost all liens the county deals with to put them in the same category as tax lien, allowing them to collect on them more quickly and at a higher priority than some other kinds of liens.

The Senate amendment, Godwin said, puts a floor on the amount that must be owed before the county could try to collect, at $10,000, meaning the county couldn’t easily collect on $8,000 or $9,000 owed. Godwin said he hadn’t been able to speak with state Sen. Harris McDowell about why he introduced the amendment, but the council on Tuesday expressed a consensus that the amendment should be opposed by the county, even if they were neutral to the bill itself.

• HB 65, which Godwin said has been placed on the House “ready list” but is idle. The bill would increase the size of the Sussex County Council from five to seven members, with two at-large seats. The council opposed the bill last year because of its potential cost alone – as much as $248,000 in the first year and $130,000 every year after.

Councilman George Cole said he still supported the change, particularly since he wasn’t sure the estimated costs were accurate. Councilwoman Joan Deaver said she was concerned, though, that it would increase the cost of doing the job of council member for those two members because of the at-large members’ responsibility to the entire county.

Council members, except for Cole, maintained their opposition to the bill.

• HB 95, which Godwin said didn’t go very far after being introduced in the House and was currently before the House Agriculture Committee. The bill would adopt into state code the Humane Society’s standards for commercial puppy mills/factories. Godwin noted that the lengthy bill had a number of opponents and “one very passionate sponsor in the House,” in Rep. Melanie George Marshall, who he said he would expect to come back and try to move it forward.

Godwin said the council had given the bill a “definite no” last year, and, additionally, it would seem that it’s now the county’s responsibility to enforce such standards, since dog control has been shifted from the state to county.

“I don’t care if the state wants to enforce it,” Cole said, noting the likely cost to the county if the requirements became a county responsibility for enforcement.

• HB 106, which Godwin noted would transfer responsibility for recreation and open space funds from the Delaware Open Space Council to the Parks and Recreation Council. Phillips said he recalled some concern from the council as to whether the change would move the responsibility from a somewhat independent body to a more DNREC-governed body, and he requested staff look into whether or not that would be the case.

• HB 209, which Godwin said would require written approval from a governmental body to request that legislation be introduced on its behalf. Godwin said a private business had apparently tried to have a charter change introduced for a town in 2009, without that town’s approval, and the bill had been introduced to ensure that those presenting legislation for introduction were truly representing who it appeared they were representing.

• SB 132, which would require that land-use ordinances go through the Delaware State Planning Office for review before they could be adopted. Godwin said the council had opposed the bill as an infringement on local authority, and he noted that the director of the State Planning Office didn’t support it last year, as they didn’t have the staff to do the reviews, and that it would slow the process down.

• HB 300, an addition to the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which would require that if a FOIA request is filed, the government body it is filed with would have to respond within 10 days, either providing the information or providing a reason why it couldn’t do so in that time, such as an extensive amount of documents being required. The change would apply to all local governments, including the county.

Cole said he had concerns about the language in the bill that refers to a “reasonable” period of time to provide the information requested. “It opens up a situation where somebody could be a pain, even though we’re trying to do our best,” he said. Godwin said he would raise that issue during hearings on the bill.

• HB 308, which has passed in the House and is in a Senate committee, and would allow county administrators to appoint dog constables. Baker said the bill had been proposed by DNREC, as officials there indicated that the original legislation transferring dog control to the counties had contained a loophole. He said DNREC officials felt HB 308 was needed so the counties would have the authority even to appoint official dog control agents, such as the SPCA.

Finally, Godwin said a bill not yet introduced but recommended by Deputy County Attorney Vince Robertson could be up before the General Assembly this session. The bill is aimed at trying to provide more efficient authority by which the county could require someone to connect to county sewer.

It would permit the county to seek legal recourse through the Justice of the Peace Court, as well as the Court of Chancery, which is the county’s only current recourse, though it is a much more lengthy and expensive process.