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Wednesday, 26 August 2009 15:02

Graham, Swain still squabbling over emergency coverage in isolated area

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Swain and Graham county commissioners agreed Monday to let their respective county managers look at solid numbers before deciding on a resolution to the Deal’s Gap quandary.

Graham County, which provides rescue service to the satellite Swain County territory and motorcycle mecca, wants Swain to contribute financially for the service, take care of its own terrain despite the distance or cede the 1,900-acre area to Graham.

Meanwhile, Swain has countered that it loses money each time it transports Graham County residents and those injured in Graham County’s Tsali Recreation Area— one of the nation’s premier mountain biking destinations — from its Bryson City hospital on to larger hospitals in Sylva and Asheville. These patients end up in Swain County’s hospital because Graham County does not have a hospital of its own.

Contrary to what Graham County had originally asserted, Swain County Manager Kevin King claimed Swain was the real financial loser on the two counties’ mutual aid agreement.

King presented the results of his research to the two boards at the second meeting called specifically to address this issue.

Assuming that the county recoups the typical 70 percent of its expenses from the patients it transfers to hospitals, each ambulance trips equals a loss of $214 for the counties, according to King.

Last year, Swain County made 55 trips to the Tsali area and 110 trips transporting Graham County patients from Bryson City to bigger hospitals. That would mean a total loss of more than $35,000 for Swain County.

On the other hand, Graham County made 29 trips to the Deal’s Gap area last year, which according to King’s calculations, signifies that Graham County lost a bit more than $6,000 last year.

But Graham County Manager Lynn Cody said the expense is much greater than that.

“It’s costing little over $100,000 to compensate our EMS, fire and rescue service and our law enforcement,” said Cody.

King said Graham County has not backed up that figure thus far.

“Up to this point, they have not proven it,” said King. “I’m empathetic to what they’re saying. I just don’t think it’s costing them what they’re saying it costs.”

According to Cody, however, the final figure must take into account the added costs associated with Graham County ambulances making a long trip on windy roads to arrive at an accident scene, only to find both the victim and motorcycle missing. Furthermore, some of the injured refuse to be treated after the ambulance has already arrived. In these not so rare occurrences, Graham County can’t bill anyone for their trip, leading not only to a loss of time and money, but also more wear and tear on their vehicles.

Terry Slaughter, EMS director for Graham County, agreed that responding to calls at Deal’s Gap has not exactly been easygoing, even if it is only an issue in the summertime when throngs of motorcyclists crowd the roads there.

“It’s a little more time consuming than just a typical call where you pick up someone at their home,” said Slaughter. But fortunately, they have never had a situation where ambulances were too tied up at Deal’s Gap to respond to calls in Graham County, thanks in part to mutual aid agreements with other counties, he said.

Out of Swain County’s $11 million budget this year, about $798,000 has been allocated to EMS. Meanwhile. Graham County expends about $884,000 of its $12.6 million budget on EMS services.

Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, said he hoped the two counties would carry on with the status quo.

“I would like to see us get along together and continue a mutual agreement,” Jones said. “[But] if we have to go it alone, we probably are prepared to do that.”

If Swain County took over rescue service at Deal’s Gap, its ambulances would have to travel nearly 50 minutes to respond to calls. The only other option would be to put up an EMS substation in Deal’s Gap.

Graham County Chairman Steve Odom said he would be willing to give Swain County six months to prepare an such a facility.

But Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said it would be hard to pull off that special service for 8 full-time residents out of about 13,500 residents in Swain County.

“I don’t see that we could justify it to the taxpayer,” said Monteith.

King said that people who move into the outskirts of Swain County, like Deal’s Gap, realize what they’re getting themselves into.

“They know when they buy that property where EMS is, where law enforcement is, where the courthouse is,” King said.

 

Redrawing county lines?

Swain stands to lose $195,000 in annual tax revenue from the 34 homes and businesses in Deal’s Gap if it were taken over by Graham County.

Odom said Graham County is not following through on its annexation proposal at this point, but it isn’t yet out of the question. He said Graham is fully prepared to petition the state legislature to move county lines.

“If they failed to give us enough money, if they fail to take care of it yes, then I don’t know why we shouldn’t pursue it, “ said Odom. “Even if it’s a long drawn-out process, I think the argument is on our side.”

Ben Steinberg, general manager at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, said he doesn’t see a need for Graham County to take over since he doesn’t mind living in isolation.

“This area, while it may not offer the creature comforts of modern life, it’s a small price to pay for the beauty of the natural surroundings,” said Steinberg. “We run to town once a week, get all the things we need. Our sign out front says population 8, and we absolutely love it.”

Steinberg said even if Graham County did annex the territory, life in Deal’s Gap probably wouldn’t change drastically.

“I’m not sure either community will be able to provide all the services we would need,” Steinberg said.

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