Lee mulls dropping EMS fee

LEESBURG, Ga. -- The Lee County Commission discussed the possibility of doing away with non-transport EMS fees during a busy work session Tuesday night, the commission's first under new Administrator Tony Massey.

EMS Director Bobby Watkins said he's taken a number of complaint calls from citizens who have been charged a $50 fee when emergency personnel responded to a call but did not transport the patient. He said since the commission implemented the fee in 2008, 1,561 such individuals had been charged the fee, a total of $78,050.

However, Watkins said the county has collected only $18,327 of those fees and, since the county had a flexible payment plan, small payments such as $5 actually cost the collection agency more to send the bill than they make off the transaction.

Leesburg Commissioner Betty Johnson made it clear where she stands on the issue.

"I made the motion to lower the fee from $100 to $50," she said. "I feel that EMS service is a service we provide the citizens of the county, and I support eliminating the fee."

Smithville/Chokee Commissioner Dennis Roland said doing away with the fee opens up emergency personnel to widespread abuse of the system.

"I've talked with (Watkins) about this, and he told me people are calling EMS to have their blood pressure checked or to have them help lift someone who had fallen," Roland said. "People are abusing the system with these kinds of calls, and it could take an ambulance away that might be needed for a real emergency."

Watkins said his personnel could not differentiate between levels of emergency.

"If we get a call, by law, we have to respond," he said. "And, sadly, the people who are abusing the system with non-emergency calls are usually among those who aren't paying."

The commission heard an upbeat report from Chief Judge Rucker Smith concerning continued county support for the Southwestern Judicial Circuit's Misdemenaor Probation Department, for which Lee County serves as the fiscal agent. The program was initially funded through a federal grant.

"The grant has run out, but I'm pleased to say that even without the grant we will be operating in the black," Smith said. "As our fiscal agent, you supplied funding for our costs, which are approximately $25,000 a month, but we reimbursed those funds at 100 percent. What we want to do moving forward is give you $30,000 in advance to stay a month ahead.

"We're happy working with the county, and we'd like to ask that you continue to serve as our fiscal agent. We have good people, and good people make good products. We want to continue doing what we're doing."

Smith said the Misdemeanor Probation Department is developing a drug court for the circuit that "we expect to be totally self-sufficient."

Lee County FFA Director Lisa Murphree asked commissioners to consider funding a multipurpose ag facility in the county. She said the county's FFA program has 111 high school and 170 middle school members.

"There are 198 farms in Lee County that bring in $131 million on their crops alone each year," Murphree said. "Our county ranks seventh in the state in horses, eighth in fruit tree production, fourth in pecans, 13th in green and oil seed production. We have a need in this county.

"Our students go out of town -- to Webster County, to Wilcox County, to Perry -- to show livestock; they have to go to Hawkinsville for rodeo activities, and they race barrels in Dougherty County. We could do all that here if we had a functional, multipurpose facility."

The commission passed a so-called "huffing ordinance" that allows law enforcement to bring charges against individuals who sniff paint, deodorant and other aerosol-propelled substances to "get high."

"There's no state law that directly addresses this issue, so passing a local ordinance will allow charges to be filed," County Attorney Jimmy Skipper said.

Commissioner Rick Muggridge asked Lee Sheriff Reggie Rachals if the practice was a problem in the county, and Rachals said his office has received a number of reports of people inhaling the products in retail outlets like Wal-Mart and Fred's.

The commission approved a first reading of a call to adopt the International Property Maintenance Codes, but they directed Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander to "tweak" the codes to fit county needs. Roland asked that the codes not be applied to the northern portion of the county.

"That's an agricultural area, and there are people there who have old buildings that are not up to code that they don't want to tear down," Roland said.

Skipper said implementation would have to be uniform.

"I'd like for us to protect people who, if their dwelling is condemned, they'd have nowhere else to go," Commission Chair Ed Duffy said.

Century Commissioner Rick Muggridge replied, "I'd also like to protect the value of next-door neighbors' property, which is the largest investment they'll make."

The commission will take up the matter again at its Feb. 22 meeting.