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Officials say referendum is only way to provide ambulance service for Oregon

Published: Thursday, July 17, 2014 2:43 p.m. CDT

Oregon Fire Protection District officials said last week that passing a referendum is likely the only way for the community to establish and maintain its own ambulance service.

The fire district board discussed a referendum at its monthly meeting July 9 and answered questions from the handful of district residents who attended.

"If the referendum doesn't pass, I don't know what we do," said Elburn attorney Brian O'Connor, who represents the fire board.

"Without the referendum, we won't have an ambulance service in town," said Fire Chief Don Heller.

Oregon has been without its own ambulance service for a month, ever since the Oregon Ambulance Service, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation, closed its doors June 17.

Betty Ferris, who co-managed the service with her husband Jim, said their reasons for closing were financial. She notified the fire board June 11 that the ambulance service was shutting down.

For the first two weeks, ambulance calls in the fire district were answered by neighboring fire districts, all of which have their own tax-supported ambulance services.

Since July 1 an ambulance and crew from ATS Medical Services, Loves Park, has been based at the Oregon Fire Station and is responding to calls from there.

The fire board approved a 10-month contract with ATS at the July 9 meeting.

Heller told the audience that dwindling payments from Medicare and Medicaid, as well as patients who do not pay at all, were major factors in the Ferris' decision to close the ambulance service.

"The Oregon Ambulance Service did a fantastic job for 40 years," he said. "I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did."

"Without the bills being paid, we can't run the service," said Jim Ferris at the meeting.

He said that when the doors closed, the ambulance service bank account had only about $9,000, of which at least $4,000 will go to pay for its required annual audit.

ATS will bill anyone who is transported in its ambulance, and the fire district will cover any shortfall associated with the cost of keeping the ATS ambulance and crew in town.

O'Connor explained that can only be a short-term fix because the fire department's tax revenues were levied for fire protection.

"Courts have ruled that you can use fire protection revenues for ambulance purposes unless it adversely affects fire protection services," he said.

Fire trustee Brian Stewart said that since most emergency calls to fire departments nationwide are medical, fire department revenues would soon be exhausted.

For the fire district to provide an ambulance service, voters in the fire district must approve a levy for that purpose, O'Connor said.

O'Connor said the referendum will probably be on the ballot next April rather than this November due to time constraints.

A petition for the referendum would have to be filed with the Ogle County Clerk by Aug. 18 to be on the November ballot, he said.

If the referendum passes in April, the tax money from it will be available to the fire district in 2016.

Heller said he does not know yet how much the tax levy for the ambulance service will be until an estimated budget is completed.

He said he expects to have firm numbers about how much will be needed in the next 30 to 60 days.

Heller said 40 cents per $100 equalized assessed valuation is the maximum under state law that can be levied for ambulance services.

The maximum levy would add $200 to the tax bill on a $150,000 home, excluding exemptions.

The Ferrises have donated the ambulance service building at 101 Madison Street and two ambulances to the fire department, which will reduce start-up costs.

"Our building has been paid in full for quite some time," Betty Ferris said. "Our ambulances are paid for. We have no outstanding bills except our day-to-day expenses."

Heller said the building is needed because the current fire station has no room to add an ambulance service.

Jim Ferris assured the board and audience that the ambulance service is not asking the fire department to pay for the building and ambulances.

"No money will change hands," he said.

Stewart pointed out that Oregon is the only fire department in the county without an ambulance service.

"We're not trailblazing here," he said. "We're the last fire district without EMS (Emergency Medical Services)."

Assistant Fire Chief Al Greene said depending on neighboring fire departments for mutual aid is not a permanent solution because the extra calls put a strain on their crews and equipment.

He said the first priority of every other district must be to its own residents.

Stewart said private ambulance services like ATS cannot keep a crew and ambulance in Oregon unless they receive enough money to cover their costs. He said just billing patients does not provide enough.

With payment from patients only, private services will answer Oregon calls, he said, but only from their headquarters which are all several miles away.

O'Connor said Tuesday that he has received the property deed, ambulance bills of sale, and related documents from the Ferrises.

He said completing the property transfer will take at least a month.

The fire district, which is 120 square miles and bordered by 10 other fire districts, includes all of Oregon-Nashua Township and portions of Pine Creek, Pine Rock, White Rock, Rockvale, Marion, Grand Detour, and Taylor Townships.

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