Citrus County’s ambulance service has until the end of the month to show commissioners it has the finances to keep operating under the county contract.
Commissioners voted 4-0 Thursday to set the deadline for Nature Coast EMS, followed by a March 14 board meeting when commissioners will decide whether to suspend the nonprofit’s operating certificate. Commissioner Jeff Kinnard had a conflict and was late to the meeting, missing the EMS discussion and vote.
“I think there’s a lot of mistrust out there,” board Chairman Brian Coleman said.
The issue first came to light last month when residents told stories of long wait times for ambulances. The contract requires emergency response time averages of 7 minutes, 30 seconds, but county commissioners say Nature Coast exceeds that time more often than not.
Since then, commissioners have also zeroed in on Nature Coast’s finances, staffing, condition of equipment, and aging ambulances.
Commissioners said the nonprofit didn’t help its cause Thursday when Nature Coast attorney Karen Gaffney taped the front page of Thursday’s Chronicle to the lectern as she was speaking. The newspaper included a story of the EMS issue, saying the county has contacted the ambulance provider in Sumter County for temporary services should the county suspend Nature Coast’s certificate.
Coleman ordered Gaffney away from the microphone, saying the county needs information from Nature Coast, not theatrics. (Gaffney is also attorney for the Citrus County Chronicle.)
“This is the problem it seems like we’ve been getting,” Coleman said.
After the vote, Gaffney said the county doesn’t seem interested in working out a solution with Nature Coast, citing the county’s contact with Sumter County’s EMS provider.
“This is bad faith,” she said.
During the discussion, no commissioner said he wanted the county to take over ambulance services. But commissioners said the Nature Coast Emergency Foundation board of directors needs to correct deficiencies.
“You have to make the choices to fix this,” Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith said, directing his comments at Nature Coast board Chairwoman Mary Hedges. “You have a Herculean task on your shoulders.”
Hedges said the EMS board was caught off guard by the county’s insistence in January that the agency prove its meeting the contract.
“We didn’t get any of these complaints. None,” she said, referring to concerns from residents.
Dr. Brad Ruben, a member of the Nature Coast board since its inception 20 years ago, apologized for issues the public has with the ambulance service.
He also was surprised to hear detailed concerns from Coleman and other commissioners.
“You know more about this than I do, and that upsets me,” Ruben said.
Coleman said that comment suggests a lack of communication at Nature Coast.
“You guys," he said, "should know more than us."