Chesterton Tribune



Elephant in the room for Burns Harbor budget: Fate of ALS ambulance

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Can Burns Harbor afford to keep the Fire Department’s new ALS ambulance service?

Town Council members wrestled with that question Monday in their first of a series of 2014 public budget workshops. Fire chief Bill Arney was asked to attend the next workshop.

Nov. 3, 2012 the department’s advanced-life-support ambulance went into 24-hour operation offering residents faster response times and a more advanced level of medical care from specially trained paramedics.

Hopes were high that most of the $250,000 annual operating cost of the service would be offset by patient transport fees, and the Town Council gave ALS one year to prove itself. But so far in 2013 just over $20,000 in fees has been generated.

The council’s proposed 2014 budget, due for filing Sept. 3, has to address what it will do about the ALS ambulance service. If discontinued, the Fire Department likely would continue to operate its less-expensive BLS ambulance offering basic medical care.

Councilman Jeff Freeze said he’s not ready to discontinue ALS service just yet because the council has to determine whether the residents want to keep it, at what cost and where the money would come from.

If it is discontinued, discussed was Burns Harbor resuming its ambulance coverage with Porter County’s contracted EMS medical service, or the town contracting with another provider or city for service.

Chesterton recently contracted with Superior Ambulance to provide ALS service there.

Burns Harbor council member Gene Weibl said ambulance service is the “elephant in the room” when it comes to the town’s 2014 budget.

Councilman Mike Perrine said he’s hugely disappointed the ALS service hasn’t generated more money and he’d hate to see it go away so quickly, however, it would have to be disbanded if the shortfall can’t be covered. The council has been tapping its savings to cover recent budgets but those savings are dwindling, said Perrine.

The ambulance discussion followed a presentation by Karl Cender of town financial consultant Cender & Company; it wasn’t encouraging.

Cender said it would be challenging for Burns Harbor to file an excess levy appeal and win approval from state tax officials to increase property taxes above the 2.6 percent increase allowed local governments next year. In the town’s case that would represent about $40,000.

“You’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” observed Cender. “I wish I had better news. Our hands are kind of tied.”

He described the limited options available, but explained they don’t always benefit on a regular basis the general fund that pays for the town’s day-to-day operating expenses.

Cender also answered questions regarding how a possible Burns Harbor annexation of NIPSCO’s Bailly Generating Station could impact the budget.

By consensus the council, with member Greg Miller absent, agreed to have clerk-treasurer Jane Jordan ask state tax officials if the town can pay off at year’s end its outstanding $1.4 million principal balance on sewer bonds that would be retired January, 2016. There’s currently $1,242,925 in the bond fund so the pay-off would require a short-term loan from the town’s rainy day fund.

Paying off the bonds early would save interest fees and free up about $600,000 a year in tax-increment financing or TIF funds that were 100 percent pledged to the bond repayment annually. TIF money can be used for capital expenditures and related consultant fees but not daily operating costs.

Last year the council approved an increase in the town’s cumulative development fund tax rate, which also is limited to capital uses only.


Posted 7/30/2013