When Morgan City and Morgan County came together last week to discuss the future of the ambulance department, fire protection, recreation department and 4th of July celebration, the debate centered on the effectiveness of interlocal agreements as well as the moral and legal ramifications of those agreements.
“It is a real legal issue versus a moral issue,” County Councilman Lyle Nelson said.
County and city leaders agreed to meet in smaller committees to iron out interlocal agreements acceptable to all sides. City and county leaders whose portfolio includes recreation were charged with discussing issues associated with the 4th of July and other events. Although both entities don’t have the budget to fund it this year, discussion revolved around hiring an event coordinator or event planner to run such events in the future.
A majority of the meeting was spent generally debating the idea of interlocal agreements.
“If the county provides services for the city, there has to be an interlocal agreement,” County Councilman Robert Kilmer said.
Without an interlocal agreement for police and other emergency services, the county is only obligated by state law to provide basic level response to city residents, which means the county would only respond to emergency, life-threatening calls from city residents, Kilmer said. The city is responsible to fund any extra services, such as regular patrolling within city limits and detective services. Those services can be provided through an interlocal agreement with the county, a private company, or the city’s own department.
“You are a municipality inside the county,” Nelson said. “That is separate from the responsibility of the county.”
County councilmembers agreed they would tell any other city wishing to incorporate the same thing.
“It is not an easy thing to do, to tell someone, ‘If you incorporate, you have responsibility for emergency services,’” Kilmer said.
“That gives me a headache,” County Councilman Austin Turner said.
While some discussion centered on new countywide taxes to cover some of these items, most city and county leaders at the meeting agreed funding through a special service district is not their preference. Wilde said even with new line item taxes on the county level, there is no way to escape interlocal agreements between the city and county.
“No one is really happy with interlocal agreements, but there is no way to escape them,” County Councilman Logan Wilde said. “No one has found a perfect loophole.”
Rather than fund ambulance services through a separate line item tax, the county chooses to fund it by charging for services and securing grants, Kilmer said. He said the county is collecting $156,000 in ambulance fees and another $32,000 in grants to help cover Ambulance Supervisor Terry Turner’s salary.
“There is enough collected that it covers expenses,” Kilmer said.
But the same is not true for the city’s ambulance budget.
In the past, revenues usually covered expenditures on the city’s side, with overruns of about $3,000 annually at times, City Councilwoman Shelly Betz said. But city leaders were shocked when the overruns started equaling 10 times that in recent years.
“Our budgets started to go up quite a bit on the expense side,” Betz said.
“We have a legitimate concern when we pay out $75,000 and only get $50,000 back,” Morgan City Mayor Jim Egbert said.
After asking for an itemized bill, city leaders began seeing “interesting items” they were being charged for including dispatch charges.
In addition, the county was being reimbursed for items and not passing those reimbursements on to the city. For example, the city was not being reimbursed for ambulance charges for events such as Widowmaker and Ragnar although the county was.
“We were charged for the ambulance to go to the event, but when the time came for reimbursement, we were not being reimbursed our 33 percent,” Betz said.
The city was also being charged in full for the ambulance supervisor’s salary while the county relied on a grant to cover some of their portion.
Betz also requested the county make the city aware of changes to emergency services budgets it votes on such as an increase in the swift water rescue budget and employees’ raises.
“We weren’t being told,” Betz said. “We are hoping to open up a better line of communication so we can get a better grasp on our budget. We try really hard to budget for you guys and then get dinged on our audit.”