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Contentious debate continues over tax levy for Ill. EMS

Many residents pushed back against the 0.004% levy, which EMS leaders say is needed due to lack of resources and volunteers

winchester ambulance.jpg

The president of Winchester EMS said a tax levy is needed to address critical staffing shortages.

Photo/Winchester EMS Facebook

Marco Cartolano
Jacksonville Journal-Courier, Ill.

WINCHESTER, Ill. — Scott County commissioners plan to resume a public hearing in February to discuss establishing a levy to fund Winchester emergency medical services after a contentious meeting Wednesday ended without being officially adjourned.

The board plans to resume the meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 in the courthouse. The procedural maneuver postpones the beginning of a 60-day period during which people could petition to stop the process. That period starts when the hearing officially is adjourned.

The meeting was triggered by a proposal to establish a special service area that would create a 0.004% levy to raise about $260,000 for Winchester EMS.

EMS Winchester board President Randy Dolen said the levy is needed to deal with issues of staffing by hiring emergency responders. Dolen said the service is down to three or four volunteers who respond to calls. According to Dolen, the volunteers are getting older and less able to meet the physical demands of the role and the group has been unable to find new volunteers.

Mandatory reductions to the billing of ambulance service for people on Medicare and Medicaid cut into the money it could collect through billing to address the staffing issue, Dolen said.

“We don’t have the help any more — the young people do not volunteer,” Dolen said. “If this doesn’t go at the end of 60 days, then probably we will have nothing more than a hit-and-miss ambulance service as a lot of communities around us do.”

A petition challenging the levy would have to be signed by at least 51% of the eligible voters in the area and 51% of the property owners, or about 1,379 voters and 1,368 property owners.

Lynette Schafer, a Winchester EMS board member, said the group has asked an ambulance service to come into the county and the figure was around $500,000.

The courthouse was packed with people who had strong opinions about the additional taxation that the special service area — which covers Winchester, Manchester, Glasgow and Alsey — would bring. While several expressed gratitude for the work that EMS does, many were opposed to the additional tax. Property owners who do not live in the district expressed outrage over paying for a service they would not receive. Several said the decision should have been handled through a ballot referendum rather than through the county board and petition process, which some felt would be difficult to fulfill within 60 days.

Eric Lakin, who used to work with Murrayville-Woodson EAS for 30 years, said he understood running a volunteer service like Winchester EMS was difficult, but he opposed approving a levy without a referendum and asked Winchester EMS to make a plan to meet its needs through other means, such as grants, fundraisers or a subscription service.

“The founding fathers of our greatest nation in the world came here to escape the tremendous burden of being overtaxed without representation — and we are quickly approaching that same status,” Lakin said. “We need to roll up our sleeves and make America a great place to live and work.”

Dee Walquist of Winchester objected to what she perceived as a binary decision of approving the special service area or the area not having ambulances.

“It’s being presented as this is an either or,” Walquist said. “I resent it being almost a scare tactic, a threat.”

County board Chairman Bob Schafer said he did not have a problem with a referendum. County board Vice Chairman Dan Hatcher said he did not initially want a referendum because he thought it would have been unfair to property owners who did not live in the area and could not have voted on it.

Schafer and Hatcher said they would consider rescinding their votes, which started the process, but Commissioner Weldon Fearneyhough said he is not considering doing so and that a ballot should not be involved because Winchester EMS did not request one when it requested the special service area.


©2020 the Jacksonville Journal-Courier (Jacksonville, Ill.)

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