The city of Oxford has grown in leaps and bounds in recent decades and could be poised to overtake Anniston as Calhoun County’s most populated city in the upcoming 2020 census.
That growth has been mostly along (and largely because of) Interstate 20, which runs parallel to U.S. 78, the main east-west thoroughfare through the city.
To accommodate farflung residents west of downtown, Oxford provided an Emergency Medical Service facility in Bynum along U.S. 78. The city also purchased ambulances for Oxford EMS to operate at Bynum and at the downtown location near City Hall.
The nonprofit medical service was established in the 1970s, but was reincorporated by Oxford in 2009 to allow EMS workers to receive government retirement plans.
In recent years, Oxford EMS has been hampered by financial struggles. So much so that the city of Oxford has been assisting EMS financially. The city gave the agency $113,281 in January and another $65,000 in August, and $167,677 on Oct. 28, and that’s above and beyond the $170,000 budgeted for fiscal 2020, which began in October.
At this past Tuesday’s council meeting, Councilman Chris Spurlin’s motion to give the EMS another $25,000 died for lack of a second. Meanwhile, on the same day, Emergency Medical Billing, the company responsible for handling Oxford EMS’s billing, sued the ambulance service because EMS allegedly owes the billing company more than $30,000.
Perhaps Councilman Mike Henderson summed it up best: “You know the definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Overall, the city has appropriated almost $500,000 to Oxford EMS this year, and officials seemed concerned that other necessities could begin to go lacking.
The service recently cut back to three ambulances and laid off some EMT workers and administrative staff, but the cuts don’t seem to have put the EMS on solid financial ground … at least not yet.
Oxford EMS is currently the only emergency medical service provider in the city, but the council seemed to indicate a willingness to pursue other avenues to fill that need. “We’d have to let EMS know what we’re doing,” said Mayor Alton Craft, “and I think they tell us they’re good through December, probably.”
While it seems to be the right move, the city’s real challenge will be legally detangling itself from the ambulance service that bears its name. City officials have argued in court that the EMS is a private entity, but EMS attorneys say the nonprofit is a branch of the city, like the police and fire departments.
The whole matter raises several questions:
What is the current nonprofit status of Oxford EMS?
How appropriate is it for the city to routinely fund private entities?
If Oxford EMS is a private entity, why should its employees receive government benefits in the form of retirement?
Did the city seek an Attorney General’s opinion on whether it was legal to provide a cover that allowed EMS employees to receive state benefits?
If Oxford EMS is indeed a public agency, then shouldn’t its financial records be open to the public?
How much are the staff, EMTs and the director paid?
How much money comes in through services each month? Each year? And how is it spent?
If the EMS is dissolved, why wouldn’t the city resume ownership of the vehicles the city purchased?
If the city of Oxford does have oversight over the EMS, then how much do city officials know about the inner workings of the EMS?
How much operational guidance or oversight is being provided, and by whom?
This relationship between the city of Oxford and Oxford EMS appears to be an arrangement that never should have happened. Getting out of this marriage is the right thing for the city to do, but it might get messy before it's all over.