By Richard Rourk
Following many weeks of discussion, the Town of Erwin officials have decided to once again enter into an interlocal agreement with Unicoi County for ambulance services. The Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously voted to approve an updated interlocal agreement during a meeting at Town Hall on Monday, March 25.
The updated interlocal agreement allows the Town of Erwin the ability to pull out of the contract with 60 days notice instead of the proposed 90 days. The updated interlocal agreement also removes the words “MedicOne” and replaces them with “ambulance service.”
The Erwin BMA’s decision came after a joint meeting between that panel and the Unicoi County Commission at Town Hall on Thursday, March 21.
Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley was unable to attend the meeting, as she was at the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) meeting in Johnson City. Hensley is the chairwoman of the FTDD and was unable to reschedule the FTDD meeting. Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice was also absent from the meeting.
The Town of Erwin’s attorney, Tom Seeley, had some questions for Unicoi County’s attorney, Doug Shults. On Thursday, Seeley asked about the status of the lawsuit against the county in regards to the upcoming contract.
“It’s a very preliminary motion for a dismissal of the lawsuit,” Shults said.
Seeley expressed concern about the lawsuit.
“The Town of Erwin would like to know the pending outcome before moving forward with the interlocal agreement,” Seeley said.
Shults expressed urgency in the matter.
“If the court refuses to dismiss the lawsuit, we still need an ambulance service in the county, so we need some kind of agreement,” Shults said.
The lawsuit in question was filed by former Unicoi County mayoral candidate John Day against Unicoi County and Unicoi County officials. In it, Day, who is representing himself in the lawsuit, argues that the bidding process performed by the county before awarding a contract to MedicOne for ambulance services was unlawful, among other issues. The contract in question was approved by the Unicoi County Commission in December and is set to begin on April 1.
Day filed an amended complaint with the Chancery Court for the State of Tennessee First Judicial District, Unicoi County on Feb. 4 and Unicoi County filed a motion of dismissal on Feb. 21. Judge John Rambo heard the case for dismissal on March 15, and as of The Erwin Record’s deadline, no decision has been made yet for dismissal.
During the March 15 hearing, Judge Rambo promised a decision by March 29.
“In fairness to both parties the court should take additional time to issue a ruling later,” Rambo said.
Seeley requested that the interlocal agreement be modified to remove MedicOne out of the interlocal agreement in case the county has to rebid.
“The interlocal agreement has MedicOne listed in the interlocal agreement,” Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said.
According to Rosenoff, “MedicOne” should be replaced with the phrase, “ambulance service.”
Rosenoff also said on March 21 that the Town of Erwin is also concerned with the clause that allows a 90-day written notice to pull out of the contract. Rosenoff proposed a 10-day notice to terminate the contract if needed.
However, Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris disagreed with the 10-day notice.
“Ten days is a little harsh, it takes five days just to call a meeting,” Harris said.
Town of Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever acknowledged that the right number is somewhere between the two options.
“Ten days seems a little small, but 90 days seems a little much to me,” Lafever said. “So if we can meet in the middle somewhere, that would be great.”
Below is the section in question from the interlocal agreement:
“In the event the contract with Medic One is terminated for any reason, the County retains the right to terminate this agreement upon providing ninety (90) days written notice to the Town. In the event an issue arises with the service of Medic One within the corporate boundaries of the Town, then the Town shall make any complaints in writing to the County regarding problems with Medic One’s service. The County shall take action to correct the problem by enforcing the contract entered into between the County and MedicOne. If MedicOne does not address the Town’s complaint to the Town’s satisfaction, the Town reserves the right to terminate this agreement upon providing ninety (90) days written notice to the County.”
Rosenoff explained that if all of the requirements of the contract were met, then the section calling for the right to terminate would never need to come in to play.
Hensley previously voiced concerns that could have prevented the Town of Erwin from signing the interlocal agreement. She also offered the idea of finding ambulance services elsewhere. Hensley had previously mentioned during a Feb. 25 town work session that Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy has offered to allow Washington County Emergency Medical Services to serve the Town of Erwin. According to Hensley, Grandy was in talks with Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable to create a regional ambulance service that would be available to serve Erwin.
Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas recently addressed the issue with the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
“I received an email on Friday, March 8, from (Washington County-Johnson City EMS Chief Executive Director) Dan Wheeley that stated that we have never been contacted about providing services for the Town of Erwin or Unicoi County,” Thomas said.
According to the email sent out to the Board of Directors for Washington County EMS from Wheeley, there have been no talks between Washington County EMS and the Town of Erwin or Unicoi County.
Lafever voiced concerned about the lack of written offers from other competing ambulance services for the Town of Erwin.
“We keep talking about Washington County coming over here, and that may be an option, but we can not rely on somebody without some kind of written agreement,” Lafever said.
Going forward, Unicoi County officials said they would like Town of Erwin officials to participate in Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meetings.
“We are trying to provide an avenue for the town to address issues monthly with our ambulance committee meetings,” Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas said during Thursday, March 21’s joint meeting.
Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White also suggested that the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Alderman send a representative to take part in the monthly Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meetings. It was announced during the Monday, March 25, Town of Erwin BMA meeting that Lafever would represent Erwin on the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee.
“It would be beneficial to have someone from the board become an ambulance committee member, that way we can hear concerns from the town,” White said.
Also on Thursday, Town of Erwin Alderman Michael Baker said that he would like to see the contract.
“We, as the town, would like a contract with teeth,” Baker said.
Town of Erwin Alderwoman Rachelle Hyder-Shurtz asked if the county had a backup plan and how the county planned on holding the ambulance service accountable.
“I will be coming in unannounced a couple times a month to get data, do an unannounced ride along once a month, and continue to have monthly ambulance committee meetings to keep track of the service,” Unicoi County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley said in response.
Thomas said this commission is committed to getting the right service for the county.
“This is a different commission than before with new faces, and we are committed to providing the best ambulance service that we can,” Thomas said.
Mosley agreed with Thomas.
“This commission will get it right,” Mosley said.
Lafever acknowledged the urgency and importance of the interlocal agreement.
“In my opinion, from the city’s standpoint, we are out of time,” Lafever said. “We have nothing in writing as it pertains to a plan B and I feel like we need to move forward and get this thing done. There is some verbiage that needs to be looked at, so there needs to be a meeting between the lawyers and the mayors to hash this out so we can present this before the boards and move on.”
After both Seeley and Shults met to come to a compromise, MedicOne was removed and replaced with ambulance service and the 90-day opt out period was shortened to 60 days.
The Town of Unicoi officials agreed to sign the interlocal agreement during the March 18 Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting. During the Monday, March 25, Unicoi County Commission meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve and accept the interlocal agreements for both the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi. Currently, MedicOne is set to start a new contract with the county to be the counties ambulance provider starting April 1, and the contract is set to run through April 2023.