BY MELANIE BUCK & LEANN DILBECK –
JPs heard from George Muns of Liberty EMS during last night’s regular September meeting of the Polk County Quorum Court.
Muns addressed the Quorum Court regarding the County’s current ambulance provider contract, which is held by SouthWest EMS (SW EMS). As he began his presentation, Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison reminded Muns that the Quorum Court was not a court of law. “We believe our contract is legal and binding. But we certainly want to give y’all the chance to speak… and remember, I’m not a member of the Quorum Court. I just preside over the meetings.”
The current ambulance provider agreement grants a “franchise,” which states: “County hereby grants to SW EMS the franchise and exclusive privilege of operating and maintaining an advanced life support ambulance servie in and through, and over all roads, streets, avenues, alleys, sidewalks, and public grounds of Polk County, and SW EMS is hereby granted the right to ingress and egress thereon for the purpose of aforesaid during the term of this franchise. This franchise will begin as 12:00 a.m. on January 28, 2013, and will terminate at 11:59 p.m. on January 28, 2018.”
During Muns presentation to the JPs, he expressed two main issues with the current contract. The first being that he interprets Ordinance No. 88-286, signed in 1988 under the administration of Polk County Judge Wingo Johnson, to prevent the County from entering a 5-year contract. Ordinance 88-286 states:
“Be it ordained by the Quorum Court of Polk County to extend this ambulance contract to a two-year period instead of a one-year period and to make the effective date January 1 thru December 31 to coincide with the terms of elected officials. The first full term beginning January 1, 1989 thru December 31, 1990. Each new contract would be renegotiated and rebid.”
Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison explained that an ordinance was the “method” of approval chosen by the 1988 officials and a contractual agreement was later used. “Even if it did, the last line says clearly that ‘each new contract would be renegotiated and rebid,’ which would allow for the terms of the contract to change,” said Ellison.
Mark Whitmore, civil attorney for Polk County Officials, explained that the ordinance in no way prevented the County from entering into longer term contracts and added, “The Quorum Court serves as the legislative body for your county. A specific action, such as a contract, would over-rule a general action like the 1988 ordinance.”
Whitmore added that under Arkansas law, Ellison, nor any previous county judge, had any obligation to bring the contract before the Quorum Court. Law allows the sitting county judge to execute contracts under $20,000, and since Polk County does not pay SW EMS any money, the contract didn’t require Quorum Court approval. “I do it that way for transparency,” stated Ellison.
Muns second issue was the date the contract was executed. Minutes from the December 2012 Quorum Court meeting state that the JPs unanimously approved the “renewal” of the ambulance provider agreement with SW EMS, with no changes, and another 5-year term beginning January 28, 2013. However, the contract wasn’t signed until May 29, 2014. Whitmore concurred that the delay of the execution doesn’t nullify the terms of it and said, if challenged, his legal opinion was that a judge would base the term to be defined by the date of the contract and not the date of the Quorum Court’s unanimous approval to renew.
Ellison said it is standard for SW EMS to provide the contract for signature. Ellison said the contract is identical to the previous contract, which the Quorum Court approved renwal of. The delay in the contract being signed was an oversight and when it was questioned, both he and SW EMS owner, Robby Hines, immediately rectified it. The delay was caused when, John Maddox, attorney for SW EMS, experienced a tragic accident with his daughter during the time of the renewal and the actual written document was overlooked.
Ellison explained to The Pulse that most Arkansas counties contract with one provider for these types of services. “It’s a matter of public safety.”
Andy Riner, who serves as the attorney for the JPs, said during last night’s meeting, “I think Muns is bringing to our attention something that we can consider in the future. There’s a signed contract, an ordinance, a resolution. When we give our word, we’ve got to stick with it until someone tells us not to. That’s my legal opinion.”
Muns referenced frustration on the part of some citizens, citing that a patient who had asked specifically for Liberty, and was denied by 911, had to wait an hour for services and he felt that it was unacceptable.
Bridgett Atkins contacted The Pulse regarding a recent accident she was a victim in near the Alder Springs area. She stated she had called 911 and requested Liberty, who was not dispatched because of the contract, “It took that other ambulance service close to an hour to get to me because they were lost on a paved county road.” A review of the accident report in question, obtained from the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, revealed that the accident was reported at 2:49 pm and SW EMS was on the scene at 3:10 pm, a 21-minute response time.
Judge Brandon Ellison gave Hines the opportunity to respond and he explained that due to privacy issues, he would not. He did, however, explain that he had been a paramedic and EMT for 31 years and operating SW EMS for 11. “We don’t plan on going anywhere.”
As JPs began to question Muns on what action he wanted the Quorum Court to take, Riner explained that with the legal binding contract in place, the Quorum Court was not a judicial legal body and any actions would have to be moved to a civil court. “This contract is going to come up again and this is something you all [Quorum Court] should consider in making your legislative determination. And that’s as far as I can advise you on it. We don’t have the authority to do anything right now.”
The contract is for the 911 services of Polk County only. There is nothing in place that can prevent a citizen from calling the ambulance service of their choice for service when needed. Liberty is advocating for citizens to have a choice when calling 911 in emergency situations.
Muns said simply, “I have no intention of suing the Quorum Court or anybody else. That’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to take care of people and in the process of taking care of people, I need a little bit of latitude to do so.”