Closed Door Commission Meeting Held With No Public Notice Or Input
EMS Chief: “The extra TLC we give to our community. We know it’s gone.”
EMS Board Chair: “We did nothing wrong…”
Following a closed door meeting, Johnston County Commissioners have decided not to renew service contracts with Four Oaks EMS and 50-210 EMS, the final two emergency medial service contract agencies in Johnston County. The remainder of Johnston County is served by Johnston County EMS – a division of Johnston County Government – which operates EMS stations from Clayton to Princeton and Kenly to Benson.
Four Oaks EMS has served their community since 1969. 50-210 EMS has served the McGee’s Crossroads area since 1991. Their current contracts expire June 30, 2021. Without a county contract they cannot legally operate. Johnston County EMS will move in July 1, 2021 and assume ambulance coverage in both communities.
Commissioners Reject Advisory Committee Recommendation
The Johnston County EMS Advisory Committee, comprised of public health, safety, and EMS members, recently voted to recommend Johnston County Commissioners extend contracts with both Four Oaks and 50-210 EMS an additional year until June 30, 2022. For the first time in recent memory, commissioners rejected the advisory committee’s recommendation, and voted not to extend contracts for emergency medical service.
Some commissioners tell Johnston County Report they never received the recommendation. Commissioners made their decision to end the two EMS contracts privately and with no public input or notification it was up for discussion in closed session.
County Manager Rick Hester said no public vote was required because the current contracts will simply be allowed to expire. How it was handled, the lack of any notification, including notification to Four Oaks and 50-210 EMS members, and the decision being made in closed session has upset many EMS volunteers.
It is very disheartening for me personally and for our community
April Matthews Barbour has been a member of Four Oaks EMS for 32 years and the chief the last 20 years. “We are deeply saddened. We have the EMS Advisory Committee and they serve as a liaison between our department, county commissioners, and the county in general. Our current 3 year contract was set to expire in 2021. At our last EMS advisory committee meeting we discussed the timing. We really needed to know if the county was going to renew our contact and the timing especially with COVID, our citizens and the community. The EMS advisory board made the recommendation to request a one year extension that will hopefully get us through COVID and give our staff an idea what likely was coming.”
“When the commissioners met in closed session recently they denied that request. The contact will expire in (June) 2021. We are deeply saddened,” Chief Matthews said. “We haven’t had any issues. There have been other departments consumed by the County for one reason or the other, but for us at Four Oaks, we haven’t had any issues. We have been great partners for the County. We have run our business with transparency and integrity. And that has worked. It is very disheartening for me personally and for our community,” Chief Matthews said.
“Bigger isn’t always better business”
“Years ago, (former county commissioner) Mr. Wade Stewart had a lengthy conversation with me about EMS,” Chief Matthews said. “We didn’t always see eye to eye, but we both wanted what was best for our community. He told me one day, ‘Bigger isn’t always better business’. I believe that big business is not always better business. There are things a smaller department can offer to our community that the County can never offer. The extra TLC we give to our community. We know it’s gone. Not because the County doesn’t have good people but they are not part of the community. The community has seen the same people, the same faces on (Four Oaks) EMS for years. The County will rotate people through.”
Community attachment will be gone
“When we take people to the hospital, some of them worry about how their dogs and cats will get fed until they get home. Our staff will go back and feed their pets. They attend funerals of patients. Delivering a hot meal to someone, checking on people. That type of community attachment, you can’t get with bigger business. It only exists with smaller departments. Losing that sense of community… it will be gone. I hate that.”
“If there are financial issues, care issues that cause our community harm, that’s a very good reason for taking over a small business. But outside of that, when you’re running something – we’re an open book – we try to keep things consistent with the same rules and guidelines and be such a good community partner. It is sad it is coming now especially in the midst of COVID.”
I don’t have any hard feelings toward the county
50-210 EMS Chief Ricky Denning said he was surprised County Commissioners did not following the recommendation of the EMS Advisory Committee but knew commissioners would not allows his department and Four Oaks EMS to operate much longer.
“I’ll be honest with you. I have been there longer that I thought we would since we have been down to two volunteer departments. In October we will have been here 29 years. We were the youngest (agency) in the county as far as a rescue department. We’ve had a good run and I think we’ve done very well. I knew it was coming I just didn’t know when. I appreciate them going ahead and making a decision.”
Chief Denning said Johnston County EMS, a division of county government, can provide retirement benefits that smaller departments can’t compete with. “As far as our employees go, they are going to want to retire one day. We can’t provide local government retirement like the County can. I have been telling our people the last two years it’s a matter of time before it happens. I retired from local government in Harnett County. If it wasn’t for local government retirement I would still be working. In the long run, I think our employees will be able to go to work with the County and will be better off. We’ve always tried to match the pay and benefits. It’s the local government retirement we could not provide.”
“I do not have any hard feelings towards the County. When this contract is up they will not renew it. We’ll continue to provide the service we have always provided until the last day.”
Did we want to see it go away? No.
“Did we want to see it go away? No. We had a lot of good memories, a lot of volunteers, but it was a matter of time with the County running everything. It was a matter of time. It makes sense. I am just speaking from my heart,” 50-210 EMS Chief Denning said.
“Volunteers are hard to come by this day and time, especially for EMS. When we started in 1991 we had 60 volunteers. Now we probably don’t have 15 volunteers. If it weren’t for the paid people we couldn’t operate.”
County Manager Rick Hester said the county is legally required to provide EMS service to citizens. “Four Oaks and 50-210 have always provided excellent service to their communities. We are appreciative for what they have done all these years.”
Johnston County EMS Director Josh Holloman said neither Four Oaks or 50-210 EMS asked to be taken over. But as the county grows, the EMS system also grows. “It is a natural progression. We value and recognize the history with Four Oaks and 50-210.”
Citizens will not see any change in EMS coverage in either community next year. The County still plans to provide one 24-hour and one 12-hour ambulance in Four Oaks and two 24-hour ambulances at 50-210.
Forced Takeover Will Cost Taxpayers
Last year, Johnston County gave Four Oaks and 50-210 EMS a total of $583,385 to operate for 12 months. The two agencies also billed their patients medical insurance to help cover transport costs. The County says it will cost them $1.5 million to operate the two departments for 12 months, or $916,615 more.
“I have always told the County even before they absorbed the other departments, in my heart, if they could do it better, a better quality of care, they wouldn’t have to worry about me fighting. I would hand them a key to the station. Whoever can provide the best service. We can still do it cheaper and better than they can and they don’t disagree,” Chief Matthews said.
Commissioner Chad Stewart of Four Oaks, the son of the late Commissioner Wade Stewart told Johnston County Report, “We look forward to a smooth transition with Four Oaks EMS and 50-210 EMS. They provide and always have provided outstanding medical care for the citizens in their communities. I believe it is important that we celebrate them and thank them for all they do and have done.” He declined to discuss details of the closed door meeting.
We’ve been told you’re done and really for no reason
Tony Capps, Chairman of the Four Oaks EMS Board said he was disappointed with the decision county commissioners made, especially with it being made in private and without any notification or public input. “We have always known this time would come since the County put EMS in place. We have had a good working relationship with the County and County Commissioners.”
“We have never been promised we would stay in business. We had no expectation it was coming this quickly. The last EMS advisory board meeting, they met and voted to give us a little more time and extend the contract for 12 more months to get out of COVID and get into conversations about how to best facilitation this transition. Our expectations were to meet with (Emergency Services Director) Kevin Hubbard, (EMS Director) Josh Holloman and (County Manager) Rick Hester to have conversations about the county contract. When we were advised our contract was to be terminated we were surprised,” Mr. Capps said.
“We did nothing wrong. We provide service, a very high quality service, and at a cheaper cost than what the County can provide. We are disappointed with the decision they made and disappointed they didn’t do what the advisory committee had recommended,” Capps said. “It is a shame it has happened like it has. I wish we could have continued to be here for our community.”
“Our whole existence has been around providing high quality care and service to the citizens of Four Oaks. Four Oaks EMS has done nothing wrong. We’ve been told you’re done and really for no reason,” Capps stated.
Under the contracts both Four Oaks and 50-210 EMS were forced to sign three years ago when they renewed their agreements, if Johnston County decided to end service with the two EMS agencies, ownership of their ambulances, equipment and buildings would transfer to Johnston County government.
At 50-210 EMS, the building they use is owned by the 50-210 Fire Department and will not transfer to the County of Johnston.
However, in Four Oaks, a state-of-the-art $1 million EMS station on Boyette Road opened in 2016, and paid for with donations accumulated over-the-years from the Four Oaks community, will transfer to the ownership of Johnston County after the contract expires. The old Four Oaks EMS station on Highway 301 could also become a County asset.
While the contract clearly states Johnston County will assume ownership of all Four Oaks EMS assets, cash in the bank and buildings when the contract ends, in this case June 30, 2021, Capps hopes the County will reconsider.
“Unfortunately the (Four Oaks EMS) Board is in a bad position in how we have to abide by our contract. People have come to us about a Four Oaks museum (at the old building). We would love to be able to use that building for the benefit of the community. The new EMS building we built, it is here to serve the citizens of Four Oaks. A lot of things we have to figure out.”