Three of our major public services are so financially fragile that they may soon break. The Monroe County Jail teters on the brink of federal lawsuits from overcrowding and understaffing. Bloomington Hospital Ambulance Service is $770,000 in debt due to changes in Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements. And our emergency medical dispatch center is too short-staffed to provide phone line help to a caller in crisis. The reason these situations exist is due largely to an obscure decision made 30 years ago, a decision which can be remedied.
In 1973, the state froze tax levies for Indiana counties and cities. Before the freeze, the controller for the City of Bloomington made estimates that left the city a comfortable margin of revenue. His counterpart for the county did the opposite, paring estimates to the bare bone. Thirty years later, Monroe County still suffers from his decision. If we do not take immediate action, the suffering could become severe.
I propose that we reinstate the County Option Income Tax initiative dropped by the Democrats this spring. The proposed increase of .0025 is 1/4 of one penny on every $100 of taxable income. For the average wage earner in Monroe County, that works out to less than $4 per month. Isn't it worth $4 per month to have our ambulance service solvent, our emergency dispatchers capable of talking us through a crisis until an ambulance arrives, and our jail personnel capable of handling the intense overcrowding at our county corrections facility?
Fully fund the Bloomington Hospital Ambulance Service
The ambulance service is $770,000 in debt. Monroe County pays a miniscule $118,000 subsidy to Bloomington Hospital to run the service. Compare that to the $850,000 paid by Porter County for a similar level of service to about the same number of residents. Owen County spends $13 per person on ambulance service. We spend less than one dollar. Unless we substantially increase this subsidy, the county may find itself having to run the ambulance service by itself, with a yearly operating budget of $2.8 million.
The hospital is under no obligation to provide ambulance service once its contract is up in 2005. They will not continue to take such enormous losses with no hope of recompense. In addition, ambulance personnel are paid insultingly low wages. A new EMT starts at $8.84/hr. Burger King was recently hiring for $9/hr. The men and women who fight for our lives in times of crisis deserve more than that. As a community, we should be ashamed of such wages.
End dangerous conditions at the Monroe County Jail
Because it is unglamorous and politically unfavorable, the County Council chronically underfunds the jail. As a result, it is desperately overcrowded and understaffed. Jailers work at tremendous risk to their own health and well-being. Burnout and staff turnover are understandably high. To hire enough new jail staff to cover basic safety needs would cost an additional $450,000 per year, every year. Prisoners are double-bunked in single occupant cells and sleeping on mattresses on the floor in every hallway. Only highly skilled management of the inmate population has avoided major incidents thus far. Sheriff Steve Sharp and jail commander Bill Wilson are to be commended.
However, due to the County Council's financial neglect, the jail is at risk for a federal lawsuit that could end in a consent decree. Vigo County entered such a decree in the 1980s and spent $80 million to comply. Imagine what that would cost Monroe County in today's dollars. The time to do something about this problem is NOW before it is taken out of our hands by the federal government.
Fully staff the emergency dispatch center
If you need medical advice over the phone before an ambulance arrives, too bad--you can't get it here. Monroe County won't pay for enough personnel to cover the phone lines if a dispatcher is tied up helping someone else through a medical crisis. We are already one dispatcher short on all three shifts just taking care of regular dispatch. Also, of the 300,000 calls handled by the center last year, only 50,000 were 911 calls.
We must hire call takers to re-route non-emergency phone traffic so it does not create a burden on emergency personnel. The dispatch center hasn't finished a staffing analysis yet, but by my rough estimates, we need eight additional dispatchers. Remember, this has to cover three shifts, seven days a week, plus vacations and training time. The cost each year, for personnel and Emergency Medical Dispatch training, is about $240,000.
If elected to the County Council, I will pursue the County Option Income Tax in order to fund these vital public services. I will not be afraid to face the county's financial difficulties head-on, which is what the Council is entrusted by the people to do. So if you live in County Council District II, I ask for your vote in November. A vote for Julie Roberts is a vote for the public good.
Julie Roberts' column originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of Greenspace, the newsletter of the Monroe County Green Party.