Fire-EMS

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A territory fight is brewing over emergency medical service in Jefferson County, pitting Louisville’s main ambulance provider against suburban fire departments that increasingly respond to 911 calls throughout the county.

The dispute has now spilled over to the Metro Council, with the union representing Louisville Metro EMS workers arguing that the outlying districts are violating Kentucky law by taxing residents too much for the added services. For example, half of the 14 fire districts that operate ambulances now tax their residents more than 10 cents per $100 of assessed property, and in some cases, as in Beuchel, the rate is even higher: 20 cents per $100 of assessed property.

The EMS union argues that rate is illegal and cites a recent letter from Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office that it feels bolsters their case. The March 27 letter from the Assistant Attorney General Taylor Payne said fire districts can’t increase the 10 cent rate unless it is the "primary" service provider in the district.

Several suburban fire departments say they clearly serve that role in their areas. But Teamsters 783 union President John Stovall, which represents Louisville Metro EMS, suggests that Metro ambulances are the primary provider.

At issue is an emerging competition between suburban fire districts and Louisville EMS amid a proclaimed budget crisis for Louisville Metro, in which Mayor Greg Fischer has warned of cuts to public safety, including EMS, to cover a $35 million shortfall in the coming years' budget. Fischer presents his proposed budget to Metro Council next Thursday.

Stovall did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, but he has raised concerns about the tax with Louisville Metro Council President David James, who then asked Beshear’s office for an opinion.

The union then forwarded the opinion to members of Metro Council last Thursday.

The disagreement comes as a number of fire districts in Jefferson County other than Louisville Metro are making ambulance service available to residents. Right now, there are 14 so-called suburban fire districts in Jefferson County that operate independently of the Louisville Metro Fire Department. Half of those fire districts also run their own ambulances.

Under Kentucky law, a fire district can collect a property tax of 10 cents per $100 of assessed property value to help pay for firefighting equipment and personnel. If a fire department is the primary emergency service provider in the district, it can increase the tax to 20 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

All suburban districts operating ambulances currently have agreements in place with Louisville Metro to respond to calls outside of their district if needed. Louisville Metro still responds to calls in the individual fire districts when requested.

But Stovall maintains that districts that have increased taxes after adding ambulance service are doing so illegally.

Buechel Fire-EMS Chief Adam Jones, who is also the president of the Suburban Fire Chiefs Association, said “certificates of need” from the state give the distinction of primary service provider to the districts.

"I would argue that the fire districts are the primary service provider," he said. "Louisville Metro EMS doesn't have an ambulance stationed in sector 37, which is our fire district."

Certificates of need are distributed by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. In most cases, to obtain a certificate of need, there is a public hearing.

“That CON (certificate of need) hearing officer determines basically at that time that Louisville Metro EMS wasn't providing primary EMS in these districts or they wouldn't have awarded the certificate of need at that time,” Jones said.

Several fire chiefs believe if the law were to be interpreted as forcing districts to operate ambulances without the higher tax, it would mean a dramatic decrease in the amount of ambulances available to answer calls.

“Really, it's going to be a detriment to the citizens,” Jones said. “Our ambulances responded to 24,000 medical calls in 2018 that Louisville Metro EMS would have to respond to.”

Louisville Metro EMS has already been plagued with concerns of slow response times and lack of staffing. Last August, Metro Council members questioned why workers were constantly leaving the department and why the department needed forced overtime to cover shifts.  

A previous letter about a similar topic from the attorney general’s office was sent in 2013 to the Middletown Fire Department when it was in the process of acquiring the Anchorage emergency medical services. In that letter, assistant attorney general James Herrick stated that, at that time, Anchorage was the primary service provider for the area and agreed that taxes could be raised about the 10 cents threshold.

James calls the issue "a concern" that could lead to fewer ambulances serving Jefferson County. He says he's asked the Jefferson County Attorney's Office for guidance on how to proceed. 

This story will be updated.

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Reporter

Travis Ragsdale joined WDRB in Jan. 2015. He focuses primarily on investigative reporting involving police, local government and infrastructure. He can be reached at 502-585-0817