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Officials: Referendum only way to pay for ambulance

Published: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

OREGON – Officials of the Oregon Fire Protection District say that passing a referendum is likely the only way for the community to establish and maintain its own ambulance service.

The fire district board last week discussed a referendum at its monthly meeting and answered questions from a 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.

He said the referendum would probably be on the ballot next April rather than this November, because of 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 is approved in April, tax money from it will be available to the fire district in 2016.

“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 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 2 weeks after that closing, 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 Ferrises’ 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.”

Jim Ferris 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.

“Without the [ambulance] bills being paid, we can’t run the service,” Ferris said at the meeting.

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 be only 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.

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