County delays building new ambulance facility

BY JOSEPH BELK | MARCH 04, 2010 7:30 AM

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Budget cuts for fiscal 2011 led the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to propose holding off on pledging funds for a new building to house the ambulance and medical examiner facilities.

The supervisors’ proposed budget for fiscal 2011 is $16 million less than the county’s fiscal 2010 budget.

By not immediately pledging money toward the building project and postponing other payments, the property-tax increase in 2011 will be 1.8 percent rather than 4.3 percent.

Because construction on the ambulance and medical examiner’s site will not begin by 2011, the supervisors chose not to bond more than $500,000 to the new facility, Supervisor Janelle Rettig said.

Alternative means of financing the project are available, and officials are still planning for the facility. Portions of the $6.4 million capital-projects fund could be allocated to the project, Rettig said.

The budget for fiscal 2011 still accounts for the addition of two new ambulance staff members.
“We recognize that we need to have four full-time ambulances available,” said Sally Stutsman, the supervisors’ chairwoman.

A 33 percent increase in ambulance calls — owing to busier interstates and a drastic rise in visits to downtown on weekend nights — has put some pressure on the department.

“There are many times throughout the week where we run out of trucks,” said Steve Spenler, the director of the Ambulance Service.

The new paramedics will have part-time designation and will be on-call during peak hours — weekend nights and football Saturdays — Spenler said.

Inadequate facilities for both the medical examiner and ambulance services led to the eventual cooperation between the two departments.

Similar functions and similar problems for the departments, such as the lack of available vehicle storage space, made the building proposition ideal.

Both departments keep a vehicle in a parking garage because of space limitations, Spenler said.

The county’s medical examiners sometimes must thaw out equipment — frozen from being stored in a public space — as they respond to a scene to recover a body, said Mike Hensch, administrator of the department.

The medical examiner department is housed in the Johnson County Administration Building and is sharing office space with the Treasurer’s Office. Though autopsies are carried out by the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, the medical examiner conducts investigative and clinical services.

“We’d like to be able to do external exams and store bodies in one location,” Hensch said.

The ambulance department has similar concerns.

New facilities would help the examiners operate more efficiently, Spenler said, though a new location would likely not help them arrive to a scene more quickly.

The ambulance and medical examiner departments will meet with an architect to discuss possible sites and make cost assessments on March 19. The supervisors will vote to complete the fiscal 2011 budget on March 11.

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