Category Archives: Government

EMS and SKCFA in Discussions Over Finances

Standing in front of the building that houses the South County EMS ambulances are left to right: Wes Schmitt, president of the South County EMS board; Vicki White, administrator EMS board; Lea Bailey, paramedic; Chris Koeneke, emergency medical technician.

By Sue Moore

When you feel the clutch of a heart attack or perhaps a stroke coming on, what do you do?

What you should do is call 911 to get medical attention as quickly as possible. Does it matter who comes to your aid? No. Just that they get to you quickly and let you live a while longer.

How quickly aid will come to residents in the Vicksburg, Schoolcraft, Scotts, Climax and Fulton areas is about to be an issue.

Those 911 calls for the last two decades have been answered by South County Emergency Medical Services (SCEMS), a nonprofit organization. It is run by a local board of directors and staffed by local area licensed emergency medical technicians (EMT) and paramedics.

In the rest of Kalamazoo County, those services are supplied by three for-profit companies: Life, Life-Care and Pride ambulance services. They and South County EMS are the only providers licensed to operate in this area.

Wes Schmitt, president of the SCEMS board (disclaimer: Schmitt is also secretary and treasurer of the South County News), appeared at the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority meeting in May to reveal the precarious financial position of his EMS operation. He outlined the need for financial support to continue going forward, saying that it couldn’t continue to operate for much longer under the contract it has with the fire authority.

Authority chair Jason Gatlin referred the matter to his board’s financial committee which will meet and review the request. He did not indicate if there would be a quick decision.

“All of our revenue is received from reimbursements from Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance. A small amount of revenue comes from memberships and grants,” Schmitt told the authority board. “The South County Emergency Services Board feels our current operation best serves our local citizenry. It is our intention to pursue every avenue possible for financing our operations. One of these avenues is financing from the SKC Fire Authority.”

“We feel this upcoming fire authority decision is so important that we are going to begin a public notification of our current status, so that each citizen can provide elected officials with input as to what they feel will best serve them and what cost are they willing to incur,” Schmitt said.

He said that all ambulance services have been impacted by the Affordable Care Act. It has significantly increased the number of Medicaid clients in Michigan. Also, increased life expectancy has expanded the number of Medicare clients.

But repayment of actual costs has not kept up with the reimbursement received for billed services. For South County, the write-off of non-collectible debt in 2016 has increased from 20 percent a few years ago to over 45 percent. To offset these losses, SCEMS contracts for paramedics with Pride Care, and pays its EMT’s at the low end of the local industry average to keep benefit costs under control, Schmitt said.

The saving grace in April, 2016 was a patient transfer program the ambulance service began with Borgess Hospital. This helped because the insurance companies’ payment helps to offset the costs of the 911 calls.

But that changed on April 1, 2017, when Borgess switched to Pride Care to provide all transfers. Schmitt said he was taken aback and did everything in his power to reverse that decision. He was successful; South County will resume participation with Borgess beginning in July 2017. But the lag in billing income is significant; it won’t be realized for another 90 days. In the meantime, Schmitt and the South County board say they need support from the Fire Authority.

He went on to list the outstanding obligations of the EMS board. The ambulance debt is approximately $130,000 with the two vehicles easily worth that amount, he said. This debt is held by Arbor Credit Union. Debt on the building housing the ambulances behind the hospital is approximately $205,000. While the building is appraised at approximately $350,000, the building’s usefulness is limited. This debt is held by Kalamazoo County State Bank.

The financial future is up to the Fire Authority board, comprised of one representative from the townships of Wakeshma, Brady, Schoolcraft and Prairie Ronde and the villages of Vicksburg and Schoolcraft.

These entities have choices too, according to Randy Smith, Brady Township supervisor. They could choose to contract with the other ambulance services in the county.

Or the Fire Authority could rescue SCEMS through a contract for services, Schmitt said.

But the communities would want to know if response times would be the same or worse, Smith insisted. They would want to know if their costs be the same or more. “We need to find all of that out before we can move forward. We can’t just give them money, that would be illegal. SCEMS needs cash now. Government doesn’t do cash now,” Smith said.

SKCFA Firefighters Commendation

The Portage Department of Public Safety Fire Division recently cited the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority (SKCFA) for assistance in locating a lost hunter in the Gourdneck State Game area in November. “This was an exceptional example of outstanding work and great cooperation between several area agencies,” Daniel Mills, Portage’s acting public safety director, wrote to Chief Tracy McMillan.

South County Fire was called to assist with finding a deer hunter who was lost and stuck in the mud while walking along the north side of Sugar Loaf Lake. South County firefighters responded with two firefighter-owned ATV’s and assisted Portage firefighters in the search. Multiple firefighters were shuttled to and from the search area by the ATV’s through the mud, water and snow, lessening the physical stress on the firefighters. The hunter was found by firefighters and freed from the mud. He was treated and released at a local medical facility later that evening, McMillan said.

Schoolcraft Moving to Prevent Water Contaminations

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The Schoolcraft village council members in session in May from left to right: Faith Akert, clerk/treasurer; Kathy Mastenbrook, trustee; Sy Spears, trustee; Russell Barnes, trustee; Keith Gunnett, president; Mike Rochholz, trustee, John Stodola, trustee; Todd Carlin, trustee; Cheri Lutz, village manager.

By Brian Freiberger

The village of Schoolcraft in May took steps to prevent contamination of the village’s water system with tentative approval of a cross-connection control plan required by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The ordinance would require periodic inspections of village properties to ensure that contamination doesn’t enter the village water supply. It focuses on “high-hazard” businesses such as car washes and mechanical shops and restaurants but extends to all water users.

In May, 2016, the village contracted with HydroCorp for a three-year period to conduct cross-connection testing. HydroCorp is a cross-connection and backflow prevention company for communities and businesses across North America. The village is working with the company’s Troy, Mich. office.

The village plan was submitted to the DEQ from HydroCorp and was given to the Village Council in April. The final plan was submitted to the Council in early May, given tentative approval later in the month and was to be presented for final approval on June 5.

A cross-connection is any connection between a public water system or a consumer’s water system and a source containing non-potable water or other substances, making it possible for those substances to enter the water system.

Cross-connections have resulted in numerous cases of illness and death, according to the cross-connection pamphlet prepared by the state Department of Public Health.

Cross-connection controls aim at preventing two sources of contamination: “back-siphonage” and “backpressure backflow.” Back-siphonage results from a vacuum in a water system caused when system pressure drops so low that an attached pipe such as a garden hose or laundry tub hose can suck contaminated water or other liquids back into the water system. This can happen when there is a break in the water main or a heavy water use nearby such as fighting a fire. Back pressure backflow can occur from back pressure caused by a downstream pressure greater than that of the water supply which can push contaminated water back into the water system. Downstream pumps or boilers are sometimes causes of backflow.

Inspections for high hazard non-residential customers will be inspected in the first year. Other non-residential customers will be inspected in the second year. Ten percent of residential customers will be inspected yearly.

At homes, installation of a hose faucet vacuum breaker can prevent back-siphonage and provide protection of the homeowner’s and village’s systems. This means equipping each outside hose connection outside or in the basement or laundry room with a simple device costing less than $10 at a hardware store.

Questions concerning cross connection flow and backflow prevention can be directed to the Michigan Department of Public Health, Division of water supply at 517-335-9216, the Michigan Department of Labor’s plumbing division at 517-322-1804 or the village Water Department.

Insurance Rating Could Lower Costs for Homeowners

By Sue Moore

Fire Chief Tracy McMillan was happy to report to trustees of the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority (SKCFA) board that the department’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating has been lowered from 7 on a 10-point scale to 5, with 1 being a perfect and virtually unattainable rating.

The ISO rating is important to some insurance agencies which base their rates on the designation. They gather statistics every five years by examining the records of each fire department in the state. They look at training records, types of equipment, capacities, dispatch capabilities, the estimated response time and how many firefighters are put on the scene, McMillan said. The response time has improved over the last six months with an average of 5.96 minutes from the time a station’s pager goes off to the time the command vehicle gets to the scene. This is based upon five miles in any direction from the station, McMillan said.

He also described the busiest day in his memory: There were 11 total calls on March 8 when a windstorm of up to 50 miles per hour hit south county. Three semi-trucks rolled over on U.S. 131 by Schoolcraft, there were grass fires and every township in the service area was having problems.

Jim Mallery, a member of the volunteer advisory board, said members have been meeting with the chief each month and making progress. “The goal is to look at the CPSM consultant’s report to see if we meet the goal we set for the month and then move on to the next goal.”

As the meeting was about to end, Vicksburg resident Denny Olson accused Randy Smith, Brady Township Supervisor and Fire Authority board trustee, of trying to get rid of the chief and said he personally “wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. You should resign or retire. I’m coming for you, Randy!”

Smith said in response that there was “No shred of truth by what’s been stated about my repressing the report on the chief. The secondary report was shared with the board a month ago. It has all been done within the law. It’s just the opposite of these charges. I’ve been protecting the chief for two years. You are uninformed and ignorant of the facts.”

Vicksburg Village President Issues an Apology

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Vicksburg Village President, Bill Adams.

By Sue Moore

“I’m embarrassed this happened under my watch,” said Vicksburg Village President Bill Adams, in response to an accusatory letter sent by Denny Olson to the Village Council dealing with several issues.

Adams walked the Council through each point that Olson raised in his April 15 letter to clear up what he called misperceptions. He apologized again, saying he has taken steps to correct any actions that might have been misinterpreted and that this is a good time to start anew to make the village the “best of the best.”

Olson’s letter contended that Adams mistreated Fire Chief Tracy McMillan of the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority through his actions while on the authority’s board. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Adams said, adding that the chief would agree with him. “We found that proper procedures were not being followed at the Authority, so we brought in the top commanders such as Tracy and his son, Branden McMillan, the captain at the Schoolcraft station, to discuss problems.

“I stressed the importance of working together as a team from the top down. Behavior started to change. Then we brought in CPSM, a consulting group to focus on policies and procedures, training and education, all key metrics to 911 calls and response times. We appointed an advisory committee to help the chief be successful, by starting to look at the most important things that are vital to the community. The chief has gone through a lot of trauma in his position, but I feel he is a valuable asset to the community going forward. I would like to have us work together to find out what more we could do, such as a scholarship program for cadet Rangers and the recruitment of firefighters.”

Also mentioned in the letter by Olson were financial losses to the village by giving away free golf at Angels Crossing, the village-owned golf course. Adams said this was corrected with new policies implemented in 2016, although free golf to those who invested in the original construction of the golf course happened long before he became village president.

The most effusive apology from Adams was in response to an accusation about a private party, a “Speakeasy” at which free alcohol was paid for by the village and prizes were awarded to wives of village council members. “This too is not true,” Adams said although he took the blame for the incident that was reported by Channel 3. The station described it as an “expose” but didn’t really prove anything, according to Adams. “Still, I should have exercised more oversight. The Speakeasy was planned as a kickoff to the Vision Campaign to raise awareness. We didn’t expect a lot of money coming in but most of those attending did contribute later on during the campaign. We have instituted new policies to head off anything like this ever happening again.”

“There were a lot more people involved than just me on the Speakeasy,” Adams said after the meeting. “I could have had better oversight but was also three levels down in the decision making. Many of those who were below me still say nothing wrong was done. My apology was for not having better oversight of what others were doing.”

Olson questioned free chairs given by Adams to two local start-up businesses. Adams said, “I was under the impression they were free when I offered them, but found out later that they weren’t free, and by that time, they were sitting in the shops in the village. I’ve taken steps to correct these actions and am asking to be forgiven for my errors and mistakes.”

Trustee Gail Reisterer thanked Adams for his statement and emphasized that “We are trying to go forward now as a team. We will need a little more time to change things, but they will be changed.” Trustee James Earl, said “It will be a new age in Vicksburg as we are not going to let speculation and rumor go on in the village.”

DDA Boundaries Revisited

In other business, Village Manager Jim Mallery reported to the Council on expansion of the Downtown Development Authority’s boundaries in December of 2014. The request was to assess the financial cost to the village’s general fund budget. This was in response to a request of several members of the Council who asked Mallery to research the impact of this decision. The DDA executive board is willing to look further at the new boundaries. The Council directed Mallery to join in further talks with the DDA and come back with a recommendation. He reported that for 2017 the total Tax Increment Financing collected by the DDA, levied on improvements to properties within the authority, will amount to $32,758.37.

Pension Plans Get a Make Over

“The Village is in the hole on its pension plan funding,” according to Mallery. At its earlier meeting in April, he proposed scrapping the current defined-benefit plan for employees starting May 1 and after, substituting a defined-contribution plan. With the defined benefit plan, the village pays costs of pension and benefits. With a defined-contribution plan, the village will set aside pre-tax dollars for employees to make their own investment decisions. The village would be gaining more control over the amount of money going into the plan. Mallery chose to accept such a plan when he was hired on July 1, 2016.

Vicksburg Village Council Pledges Good Government

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Local residents attending the meeting and sitting listening attentively.

By Sue Moore

In the wake of some questionable financial practices revealed last year, Vicksburg Trustee James Earl at a March council meeting pledged better, sounder village government henceforth.

“We will be a much better government moving forward,” he said in a statement. Earl said he is making a “commitment to change our paradigms. It is time to throw out the old way of doing things. We will do things the right way every time. We will do things better than we ever have. We will create a culture that cultivates a high level of customer service for all of our citizens. We will create a culture that makes everyone proud to be a Vicksburg resident.”

His statement was made in part to clarify the audit report and the impending budget planning process that the council is facing this spring. “Reaching our goals will require a level of analysis and transparency that has likely never been seen in Vicksburg,” he said. “We must adapt our goals and our expectations based on sound governmental practices. We must continuously improve our performance in every department, including this Council, to meet these new expectations. The expectations are to make Vicksburg the best village in America, where the residents and our visitors receive ‘wow!’ service.”

Village Manager Jim Mallery at the next meeting in March, introduced policy changes to council rules of order that call for the meetings to be run more efficiently. Residents will have four minutes to comment on agenda items at the beginning of each meeting. For non-agenda items, there will be three minutes allotted at the end of each meeting. Each speaker will be asked to come to the podium, state name and address, and address any questions directly to the council president and not individual council members.

In other business, the Council approved a change to the Brownfield Authority membership that put all of its members on the authority with separate lengths of service defined. They added village residents Steve Goss and Don DeBruin for their expertise in business and finance. The village is expecting possible applications from local entities in the near future so it will be imperative that the council members gain an understanding of this tool for economic development in the village, Mallery said.

Spending on resurfacing major and local streets in the village was discussed. The council granted approval to subcontract with the Kalamazoo County Road Commission to bid the paving of the major streets planned for improvements. Repair of the storm drain pipe at the corner of Boulevard and W. Prairie Street was approved for the village’s DPW crew to fix.

Danna Downing presented her yearly report on the South County Community Services (SCCS) activities with her usual passionate review. She introduced Diane Durian, who is in the midst of conducting a senior services outreach campaign, funded in part by the Vicksburg United Way. She related that there are 3,000 seniors in the south county service area. A third live in poverty; 700 live by themselves. She is making in-person calls on seniors to determine the extent of services they are likely to need now and in the future.

Hoyle Submits Resignation Letter to the DDA

John DeBault holds the paperwork for Vicksburg business owners to use in their application for a façade grant or loan for their building. Standing in back are DDA members Julie Merrill, Fawn Callen, Mary Ruple. The applications are available at the village office on Kalamazoo Avenue.

By Sue Moore

Kathleen Hoyle resigned as the Downtown Development Authority’s director at their meeting in February. She cited the need to move on with other projects. “I like to leave things better than when I came,” she said.

“I have really appreciated being part of Vicksburg and working with the community over the last few years to assist in moving the village forward to become the fastest-growing municipality in the state,” she said. “The residents have expressed their vision of Vicksburg’s future, planning was completed and implementation has begun, so now it’s time for me to move on to other projects. It has been an honor to work with the Vicksburg community and I know the future is in good hands.”

Board President John DeBault accepted the resignation. He told the board it might want to confer with all the entities the DDA has worked with. “Maybe we moved too fast, doing three projects last year. Maybe two is enough in 2017.”

Rudy Callen, president of the Vicksburg Foundation, told the board not to forget what the DDA was before Hoyle was hired. “There was little or no money, a skeleton crew and no activity. Great things have happened since then. Now is a chance to step back and get in sync with the village. There is so much potential and so many good people here.”

To that end, the board is getting ready to restart its “Façade Loan” program on April 1. A committee was appointed to handle details of the offer to Vicksburg business owners. Members will report back at the regular March meeting. There is also a revolving loan fund available for building owners to improve their properties. Applications will be taken from March 10 to April 28. Those qualifying will have money released by May 10, Hoyle reported.

A special meeting of the DDA trustees was scheduled to review priorities and begin to chart the authority’s next course.