Winchester EMS Pushed to Brink as the County Continues to Stipulate Contract for Special Service Area

By Benjamin Cox on January 12, 2024 at 9:14am

The southern half of Scott County is in danger of losing its ambulance service despite having a special service area tax that’s almost 2 years old.

Voters in Scott County approved a special service area tax in June 2022 by a 57% majority. The special service area was accepted by the Scott County Commissioners in October 2022. The bid for the emergency services were then placed out in April 2023.

The non-profit Winchester EMS group placed the only bid in May 2023. At the first meeting in June 2023, the Scott County Commissioners approved the awarding of the bid to Winchester EMS.

A months long fight then ensued between the Winchester EMS and the County Commissioners over an audit. Randy Dolen, chair of the Winchester EMS says, that the commissioners threw up roadblocks on the audit and who should do it: “The first hurdle was prior to that we had to start an audit with an independent firm our lawyer had set up. In working toward that progress, we were told ‘no’ that we couldn’t use our independent auditor, but had to use the county auditor. We started working on that process. At the time we were notified that we had to use the county’s auditor, we called and were told that she was on vacation and that she would be back in two weeks. We called her on August 1st and she refused to do the audit and said it was not needed. We took that back to the commissioners. At that point in time, they told us ‘no, you have to use your own auditor.’ Due to the time of the year, we went through contacting 7 different auditors. Nobody would take it because we were non-profit. We were told that if your a non-profit and your budget is less than $850,000, you do not have to have an audit. On the 8th auditor, we finally got them to take it on begrudgingly and got it done. All the information that has come out is that we stalled it all and that we have something to hide. We have nothing to hide. It’s all here in black and white. The audit turned out fine.”

Molly Taylor, a Winchester EMS volunteer, says that since the audit dispute, the requirements by the Commissioners has only continued to go up: “Since we got the audit, we’ve went back and forth with the contract because that’s when they refused to back pay us to September. The initial contract required 2 Advanced Life Support, fully staffed rigs. That is a million-dollar venture. Again, that’s just for the cost of paying paramedics for the two ALS rigs. The contract that the commissioners want could never be met in a rural area ever. The bid packet that they sent out was obviously drafted from a metropolitan bid packet that was obtained somewhere and revised, but again, could never be established in a rural area.”

According to Winchester EMS officials, the commissioners demanded that ALS be in place by March 1, 2024 according to a third draft of the contract sent out on December 29, 2023.

The tax levy for 2023 was filed on December 8th, and money has not been distributed for salaries to the Winchester EMS since the proposal sent to the commissioners in July was accepted. Since then, the county was sued by an adjacent landowner who said they would not benefit from the Winchester EMS special service area. The legal counsel of both the EMS and Commissioners worked together on the lawsuit.

Despite the mutual work on the lawsuit and the ongoing infighting, Dolen says that the Winchester EMS is deeply in danger of going out of service within the next 60 days: “The next step if we don’t receive the tax money is, #1, if they don’t pick up the salary money that has been paid out (because we are flat broke right now), we may have to close. We are supposed to give 60 days to the State of Illinois that if we are going to shut down. I can’t guarantee we are going to be here in 60 days. We are on the verge of having to close the doors. The money is there. We need to be paid. Everything was done. The money was collected. The proposal was accepted. We’ve Mickey-Moused this other stuff since then from way prior to September 1st. When they accepted the proposal, then we started working towards everything trying to do this.”

EMS officials say they have hired two paramedics since the process began and missed out on a third due to not being established. An article in the Scott County Times published on Thursday sought comment from a Pike County EMT Casey Kendall on the difficulty of seeking ALS certification in the state right now. Kendall told the times that it could take 4-5 months to receive the paperwork, meet the requirements, and receive an inspection from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Kendall says due to the lack of EMTs nationwide, the outlook of getting certified for ALS could be even longer. Staffing for ambulance services currently with ALS certification is at a current crunch.

According to a press release issued by the Scott County Commissioners on Tuesday and printed Thursday in the Scott County Times, the board says that due to the Winchester EMS’ inability to provided Advanced Life Support 24 hours, 7 days a week; and cannot provide a timeline for when they can achieve that certification, the contractual negotiations were at an impasse. WLDS News was only able to obtain the press release late Thursday morning through a third party and was never sent the release.

Comments provided by Commissioners John Simmons and Tom Peterson says that further negotiations are ongoing and they are confident a deal can be reached to keep the Winchester EMS running and have the special service area in place.

Requests for comment from Commissioner Chair Bob Schafer about the situation have gone unanswered. Scott County State’s Attorney Rick Crews has deferred all requests for comment on the situation to the commissioner’s office.

In an email obtained by WLDS News on Thursday, Scott County State’s Attorney Rick Crews suggested to the Winchester EMS Legal counsel James Sinclair of Alton that additional language be added to a potential contract in which the EMS would be required to provide quarterly updates on the efforts to obtain ALS certification and if the Winchester EMS were not able to obtain ALS in a “timely manner” that the commissioners would place and advisory referendum on the ballot.

The referendum would ask voters if they would still support the Winchester EMS despite having on Basic Life Support (BLS) certification, which they have now. If the voters chose “yes,” the contract with Winchester EMS would be renegotiated, and if “no,” the special service area would be dissolved.

The suggestion did not provide a “timely manner” for obtaining ALS certification, nor did it provide any information on what would happen to the special service area tax collected up to that point.