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Wednesday, 14 April 2010 17:37

Swain and Graham strike deal over ambulance service to motorcycle Mecca

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Swain County is nearing the end of an ongoing saga with neighboring Graham County over who will provide emergency services to Deal’s Gap.

The sparring counties reached a tentative agreement last week pending approval by both boards.

According to the agreement, Swain will reimburse Graham $250 for each time it sends an ambulance to Deal’s Gap, as well as pay any portion of ambulance bills that is uncollectible.

“It is good news. We can still be a friend to Swain County and help them out in that area but in this case we are being fairly compensated,” said Steve Odom, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.

In exchange, Graham will also reimburse Swain for taking care of emergency calls at Graham’s Tsali mountain biking area, which is closer to Swain.

Kevin King, county manager for Swain, called it a fair agreement and said he expects commissioners to approve the plan next week.

Deal’s Gap — an outlying Swain territory that is completely bordered by Graham — receives droves of thrill-seeking motorcyclists headed to the Dragon and Hellbender, world-famous sections of winding roads. But it would take an ambulance 45 minutes to get there from Swain, so Graham has long provided emergency services to the territory.

Graham was being hit in the pocketbook by routinely covering all 911 calls to the area and grew weary of responding to an increasing number of serious wrecks. Each time Graham sends an ambulance out of the county to the remote Deals Gap territory, “We have to call in backup crews to cover our own county,” Odom said.

And patients treated don’t always pay their ambulance bill.

“A lot of times we are left holding the bag,” Odom said.

Odom said Swain was taking advantage of Graham. The county proposed everything from annexing the territory to demanding $80,000 annually from Swain.

But Swain County claimed it was incurring its own expenses transporting Graham patients to area hospitals from the Tsali campground.

After a months-long stalemate on the issue, Graham decided to drop all emergency services to the area in January. Swain leaders retreated from their line in the sand and said for the first time, they would be willing to negotiate.

But according to King, the two decided to cooperate again after a rockslide shut down the Dragon.

“A lot of conversation came out of those few days it was closed,” said King.

While King is unsure on why Graham County backed down from its initial demands, he suspects the county could not find figures to back up their initial request, which he called extravagant.

Before the tentative agreement was reached, Swain’s rescue squad had independently collaborated with the Steacoah rescue squad to come up with an agreement of its own. Stecoah would provide first-responder coverage to the area until Swain could make the long drive to Deal’s Gap.

King said the new arrangement will again solidify the relationship between the two counties.

“We’re all mountain people and trying to reach an agreement,” said King.

Becky Johnson contributed to this article.

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