An ad hoc group has been formed to advocate on behalf of the county’s emergency management services, in hopes of moving the department out from underneath the umbrella of Weems Memorial Hospital and assigning it to the sheriff’s office.

Named the “Coalition for a Safer Franklin County,” the group is chaired by Eastpoint businessman Steve Kirshenbaum, with Cliff Butler, a member of the Weems Memorial Hospital Healthcare Foundation, as co-chair.

The advisory committee includes St. George Island resident Bud Hayes, Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson, Jay Abbott, president of the Franklin County United Firefighters Association (FCUFA), and George Pruett, vice-president of FCUFA.

Kirshenbaum said that the group, which plans to appear at the April 3 county commission meeting, is working to ensure that EMS, which is a county responsibility, has adequate staffing, which is likely to require that employees get a boost by inclusion in the state retirement system

“We’re giving out so much overtime it’s ridiculous,” he said. “We’re on the verge of burning out all our full-time employees.”

According to Michael Murphy. Weems interim EMS director since Oct. 2016, the department has 28 employees, including three full-time paramedics, none of whom live in the county.

The ambulance service made a total of 1,850 runs last year, although only 1,386 of these were transported. Of these transports, 601 were taken to Weems, while 283 involved transports from Weems to other nearby hospitals.

The average transport is a little more than 36 miles, based on distances calculated from within the county as well as those transports from Weems to Tallahassee Memorial, Bay Medical, Sacred Heart and other nearby facilities.

Pay for EMTs averages $11 per hour, and $14.25 for paramedics, Murphy said, which is above average for the region, but not if the entire salary and benefit package is factored in.

“There’s no reason for people to stay here more than a year or two,” he said. “We’ve slowly dwindled down and no one is applying to replace those who left.”

He said Franklin is one of only four counties in the state (Calhoun is another) that maintains a hospital-based ambulance system.

Murphy said in 2017, the ambulance received a nearly $765,000 direct subsidy from the county, while it raised about $762,000 in billings to patients. This led to being in the black by about $109,000 at the end of the last fiscal year.

The average ambulance bill for a run is about $988, but Weems only gets a return of proceeds of about $560. Murphy estimated that the ambulance service could save about $85,000 to $90,000 in overtime if it were fully staffed.

“I have had several paramedics and EMTs tell me that they would apply the day we obtain the proper benefits that almost all the other services around us offer,” he said.

The sticking point in shifting the service to the sheriff’s office is likely to be the cost of bringing employees under the Florida Retirement System.

Murphy estimated that the additional cost would be about $154,000, based on it being 23.27 percent of each full time or eligible employee’s salary, which last year totaled about $587,000.

In the last complete fiscal year a total of about $905,0000 was spent on overall payroll for employees, including part-time, non-eligible staffers, Murphy said, but this would drop to about $819,000 once overtime was stopped, and further drop with a decline in the need for part-timers.

He said based on a revenue surplus last year of about $109,000, moving into the state retirement system would still leave a leftover.

“It will be a seamless transition to go from hospital-based to under the sheriff’s office,” Murphy said. “The sheriff’s office might need to employ an additional part-time member to its finance department to account for the additional 35 employees as well as processing the revenue obtained from billing and county subsidy.”

Murphy said in addition to cost-savings from eliminating overtime, the service could save about $20,000 annually by moving the Eastpoint EMS station from the current location on U.S. 98 to the sheriff’s office on County Road 65. Relocation of the Lanark EMS station to the old county annex location is expected to save about $11,000.

“Additional revenue will be obtained from a mutual aid contract with Liberty County for sole response to Sumatra at between $5,000 to $15,000,” Murphy said. “Also being under the sheriff’s office, the reimbursement from the uninsured as well as patient contributions will probably be up an additional 5 to 10 percent, or about $10,00 to $20,000.”

Murphy said that being fully staffed, with a captain on duty every day, will help in retaining employees. He said the EMS director would be moved into an administrative position which will provide more opportunities for grants, greater oversight and a tighter focus on the budget and both short- and long-term goals.