NILES CHARTER TOWNSHIP – An ambulance provider serving Niles and Buchanan is seeking a 150% increase in funding over the next five years to help offset difficulties in hiring and retaining staff.
The Southwest Michigan Community Ambulance Service presented the proposal to increase its Special Assessment District rate to the Niles Charter Township Board of Directors on Monday.
SMCAS is a non-profit, municipally owned and operated advanced ambulance service. It has provided 24/7 emergency response in Southwest Michigan since 1976, serving residents of the towns of Buchanan and Niles, as well as the townships of Buchanan, Niles, Howard, Bertrand , Milton and Pokagon.
Currently, each parcel in the agency’s service area pays $20 per year to have Advanced Life Support level service on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. According to SMCAS, the rate has not increased for more than 25 years while operational costs and call volume have continued to climb without additional funding.
SMCAS is asking for an increase in the special assessment rate to ensure it can continue to provide the high level of skilled pre-hospital care that residents depend on. The additional funding would be used to recruit and retain new and existing staff, compensate staff at industry standard for their work, and better cover operational costs.
Under this request, the rate would gradually increase over the next five years. The rate would increase from $20 to $30 in the first year and increase by $5 per year thereafter until it caps at $50 per year. This equates to just over $4 per month per household or package.
The increased requested assessment will help SMCAS avoid reducing EMS services, lengthening response times and limiting critical emergency care; something other communities in Michigan are experiencing.
In his presentation to the board, SMCAS Executive Director Scribner explained how the service has been able to strengthen its financial position over the past eight years. During this period, the organization improved its billing processes, developed financial controls, centralized scheduling and payroll processes, and replaced its ambulance fleet with newer and more reliable vehicles.
And although SMCAS is not in financial difficulty, Scribner said he was asking for an increase in his SAD because ambulance agencies operate on very thin margins.
“We don’t have extra money sitting somewhere where we can make big, massive changes like we have to do this year,” he said.
Additionally, Scribner said fee-for-service earnings are generally fixed and dictated by contracted rates from insurance companies and Medicare and Medicaid service centers.
“In other words, Medicare, Medicaid, tell us how much we’re going to be paid,” he said. “No matter what we charge, so do most insurance companies.”
Scribner used last year’s SMCAS finances as an example. In 2021, the agency billed $5.15 million for the services, but had to write off $2.8 million of that amount, leaving the ambulance service with a collected total of $2.3 million from income.
“Unfortunately we collected about 45% of what we charged,” he said. “It’s important to understand that because when we need more income or additional income, we don’t really have a way to raise that money without a special levy.”
Township Clerk Terry Eull said while he appreciates all that SMCAS offers to the community, he could not support an increase of this nature.
“We support SMCAS, there’s no question about that,” Eull said. “We just don’t support such a large increase. You’re asking for $30 for this year, which is a 50% increase, then a two and a half times increase in five years? We need extra police protection right now.
Instead, Eull encouraged SMCAS to pursue mileage before the November 2022 election, similar to what the Niles Township Fire Department did in 2020.
“I think you have to let people vote on that,” Eull said. “You are asking us to bear the weight of the increase in your tariffs. …I think if you can start asking that kind of money from the people of Niles Township, then you have to go out and ask for a mil or whatever you decide to start.
Scribner responded by saying he believed pursuing an increase in SAD in the township was the fastest way to meet the needs.
“The reason we were recommended the special mileage levy is that it’s more stable. It’s more of a sure thing and when you have something as critical to your infrastructure as an ambulance service, you need to know it’s going to be there,” Scribner said. “You don’t want to put this to a vote and make it optional whether or not you get ambulance service.”
Administrator Chris Vela asked Scribner what would happen if SMCAS didn’t get the SAD.
“If we lost that half million dollars in funding, we would have to cut our resources,” he said. “We would have to reduce our response capacity in order to stay afloat. We simply couldn’t survive without it. The SMCAS as you know it today would not exist.
Eull said he would be prepared to support a lower increase if SMCAS chose to change its proposal.
“I think we have to find a way to negotiate something,” Vela said. ” I do not want to lose you. I don’t even want to risk losing them.
The board will vote on the matter at its meeting scheduled for June 20. The SMCAS will make the same presentation to the Municipal Council of Niiles on Monday June 13th.
In other cases:
– Trustees unanimously approved zoning board changes regarding fence height in a front yard and zoning application deadlines and notice requirements. A fence in any required front yard setback cannot exceed four feet in height and must not exceed six feet in height in a required front yard that abuts another street. Requests for special land use must be submitted at least 45 days before the next regular meeting of the Planning Commission. Site plans, a completed application form, all required attachments and supporting documents
materials, an application fee and any required application security deposit must be
submitted to the Zoning Administrator by the applicant or their designated agent not
less than forty-five (45) days before the next regular meeting of the Planning Commission.
– Trustees voted 6 to 1 to approve the purchase and installation of a new roof for the Township’s pumphouse on Fulkerson Road. Bill’s Roof Repair won the tender at a cost of $8,640 for the job.