Facing financial facts of life at EMS HQ

Friday, October 23, 2009
Marshall County Emergency Medical Service Director James Whorley confers with the county's EMS Committee with Commissioner Reynelle Peacock Smith, chair of the panel, at right.

Financial issues facing the Marshall County Emergency Medical Service range from illogical equipment purchases to results of the State Comptroller's audit that found discrepancies in purchasing practices.

EMS Director James Whorley reviewed some of them during a county committee meeting this week when he invited visitors to the ambulance stations. A few days earlier, the comptroller's assistant, Richard Norment, issued a report on cash shortages and other questionable activities revealed by audits conducted at 89 of the state's county governments.

A number of the questionable activities reported in the comptroller's audit of Marshall County's EMS precede Whorley's administration. He succeeded Jimmy Adams who resigned and has subsequently been revealed to be the subject of a state investigation.

"I'm fixing to have to buy a cardiac monitor," Whorley told the committee about equipment that needs to be replaced. "I found a vendor who can use it for parts.

"I'm bartering junk for stuff we need," he said.

Whorley took full responsibility for having purchased a particular brand of truck on which the ambulance box is affixed. Early in his administration, he bought the model that was the same as the previous purchase.

But they're too high for the height of stretchers, so a $5,500 air-ride system is installed to lower the truck to the level of the stretcher, Whorley has explained.

Different stretchers can be purchased, but they don't solve the problem.

"The stretchers are all the same," he said of their height. "Hydraulic stretchers cost $14,000," but still the truck is too high.

An ambulance employee's back injury might cost $80,000, he said. It's better to spend $5,500 and not take the risk.

Whorley "was just waiting for the new budget" to be adopted so he could buy the air-ride equipment for an ambulance, he said.

The fiscal year starts July 1. The budget was approved and put into operation in September.

Norment's statewide summary to Comptroller Justin P. Wilson reports the EMS' previous administration called for bids for Ford trucks to be used for ambulances and Muster Emergency Vehicles bid a 2006 demo for $80,090 plus installing an air-ride option for an existing ambulance for $5,100 plus $8,100 per unit for five heart monitors for a total cost of $125,690.

The Comptroller's report says specifying a brand of vehicle reduces competition and therefore violates the intent of the bidding process.

Bid specifications called for three cardiac monitors, but the invoice from Muster reflected five monitors, the comptroller reported.

Whorley was hired as the new director in March 2008. Thirteen months later, officials revealed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had been investigating the previous director.

Bid specifications "custom made for one bidder" were reported in the Comptroller's audit made public April 9 about purchases and sales by Adams.

"It appears that the bid specifications were written specifically for [one particular] ambulance since delivery was required within 30 days," according to the state report which was discussed at length - on a condition that this news report would come after the audit was made public - during a County Budget Committee meeting about a month earlier.

Monday night during the EMS Committee meeting, the panel turned to other business about the time when Commissioner Mary Ann Neill remarked, "I guess we're on our own" if anything is to be done about the discrepancies suffered as a result of Adams' decisions.

A North Carolina man has been convicted for stealing a county ambulance he purchased with forged papers, but there's been no progress in getting the vehicle back. It may cost more to get it than it's worth.

Whorley's invitation to commissioners is extended to the public to visit the ambulance station so taxpayers may personally see the service, its buildings and vehicles.