Township board to vote on ambulance service Special Assessment District

Published 1:47 pm Thursday, June 9, 2022

NILES CHARTER TOWNSHIP — An ambulance provider servicing Niles and Buchanan is seeking a 150 percent increase in funding over the next five years to help offset challenges in hiring and retaining staff.

The Southwestern Michigan Community Ambulance Service presented the proposal for an increase in its Special Assessment District rate to the Niles Charter Township Board of Trustees on Monday.

SMCAS is a non-profit, municipally-owned and operated advanced life support ambulance service. It has been providing 24/7 emergency response in Southwest Michigan since 1976, serving residents within the Cities of Buchanan and Niles, as well as Buchanan, Niles, Howard, Bertrand, Milton and Pokagon Townships.

Currently, each parcel within the agency’s service area pays $20 per year to have Advanced Life Support level service on call 24/7. According to SMCAS, the rate has not increased in more than 25 years while operational costs and call volume have continued to climb without additional funding.

SMCAS is seeking an increased special assessment rate to ensure it can continue providing the high-level of skilled pre-hospital care residents depend on. The additional funding would be used to recruit and retain new and existing staff, pay staff an 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 $5 per year after that until capping at $50 per year. That amounts to just over $4 per month per household or parcel.

The requested assessment increase will help SMCAS avoid reducing EMS services, lengthening response times, and limiting critical emergency care; something other communities across Michigan are experiencing.

In his presentation to the board, SMCAS Executive Director Scribner detailed how the service has been able to strengthen its financial position over the past eight years. In that time, the organization has improved its billing processes, developed financial controls, centralized scheduling and payroll processes and replaced its fleet of ambulances with newer, more reliable vehicles.

And while SMCAS is not in financial trouble, Scribner said it is requesting an increase in its SAD because ambulance agencies operate on razor-thin margins.

“We don’t have an extra pot of money sitting somewhere where we can make big massive changes like we need to make this year,” he said.

In addition, Scribner said fee-for-service revenues are generally fixed and dictated by contractual rates of insurance companies and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“In other words, Medicare, Medicaid, tell us how much we’re going to get paid,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what we bill, the same goes for most insurance companies.”

Scribner used last year’s SMCAS finances as an example. In 2021, the agency billed $5.15 million dollars for services but had to write off $2.8 million of that amount, leaving the ambulance service with a collected total of $2.3 million in revenue.

“Unfortunately, we collected about 45 percent of what we billed,” he said. “It’s important to understand that because when we need more revenue or additional revenue, we don’t really have a way to collect that money without a special assessment.”

Board of trustees feedback

Township Clerk Terry Eull said that while he appreciates everything SMCAS offers to the community, he could not support an increase of that nature.

“We support SMCAS, there’s no question about that,” Eull said. “We just don’t support that large of an increase. You’re asking for $30 for this year, which is a 50 percent increase and then to raise it by two and a half times in five years? We need extra police protection right now.”

Instead, Eull encouraged SMCAS to pursue a millage ahead of the November 2022 elections, similar to what the Niles Township Fire Department did in 2020.

“I think you need to let the people vote on that,” Eull said. “You’re asking us to take the brunt of you raising your rates. … I think if you can start asking for that kind of money from the people of Niles Township, then you need to go out and ask for a mil or whatever you decide to start with.”

Scribner responded by saying he felt pursuing a SAD increase through the township was the fastest way to take care of the needs.

“The reason we were recommended the special assessment versus the millage is that it is 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 that it’s going to be there,” Scribner said. “You don’t want to put that out to a vote and make it optional whether or not you get ambulance service.”

Trustee Chris Vela asked Scribner what would happen if SMCAS was not granted the SAD.

“If we lost that half a million dollars in funding, we would have to pare down our resources,” he said. “We would have to reduce our ability to respond in order to stay afloat. We simply couldn’t survive without that. SMCAS as you know it today would not exist.”

Eull said he would be willing to support a smaller increase if SMCAS chose to amend its proposal.

“I think we need to figure out a way to negotiate something,” Vela said. “I don’t want to lose you people. I don’t even want to take the risk that we might lose them.”

The board will vote on the matter during its scheduled June 20 meeting. SMCAS will be giving the same presentation to the Niiles City Council on Monday, June 13.


In other business:

– Trustees unanimously approved zoning board amendments pertaining to fence height in a front yard and zoning application deadlines and noticing requirements. A fence located in any required front yard setback area cannot exceed a height of four feet and shall not exceed six feet in height in a required front yard that abuts another street.  Applications for a Special Land Use must be submitted at least 45 days prior to the next regular Planning Commission meeting. Site plans, a completed application form, all required attachments and supporting

materials, an application fee, and any required application escrow deposit shall be

submitted to the Zoning Administrator by the petitioner or his designated agent not

less than forty-five (45) days prior to the next regular Planning Commission meeting.

– Trustees voted 6-1 to approve the purchase and installation of a new roof for the township’s pump house on Fulkerson Road. Bill’s Roof Repair was awarded the bid at a cost of $8,640 for the job.