Tulare County funds stem layoffs at EDA

Exeter District Ambulance was one payroll away from layoffs, service reduction when Supervisor Kuyler Crocker and county staff found money to keep them on the road

EXETER – One payroll away from laying off employees and reducing ambulance service to eastern portions of the county, a Tulare County official was able to provide financial assistance to a local ambulance company after all other levels of government had failed.

Exeter District Ambulance manager Peter Sodhy said he picked up a check for $200,000 from the County of Tulare on Friday, staving off possible layoffs due to financial losses from the pandemic in the spring. While property taxes make up about 13% of the district’s revenue, EDA’s primary source of income is from service calls. Responding to calls for medical aids and transports makes up about 80% of the district’s revenue or just under $2 million. At the beginning of the governor’s mandated shutdown, EDA’s call volume dropped by almost a quarter and transports dropped by one third between March and May when compared to the previous year. That represented a $1 million loss by the end of the fiscal year in June. That was further compounded by a slower rate of reimbursement from insurance carriers for transports.

“We were probably one payroll away from laying off EMTs and paramedics,” Sodhy said. “We may have been able to avoid it for another two or three payrolls but it was getting pretty dire.”

After identifying the trend in April, Sodhy began applying for federal assistance in May. EDA quickly discovered public agencies were ineligible for Small Business Association’s Economic Injury and Disaster Loans or the Paycheck Protection Program approved through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, something their private counterparts at American, Imperial and Lifestar were able to take advantage of. Faced with a 100% increase in workers compensation rates and dramatically reduced revenues, the district was forced to temporarily reduce the number of ambulances running four days per week from three to two. Less rigs did not mean less hours for full-time employees. Sodhy said firefighters could no longer double as paramedics due to COVID-19 restrictions implemented by local fire departments fearing they would deplete their responders. While the overall reduction hours helped offset workers comp costs, it increased the number of full-time people working extra shifts.

“We ended up asking for a lot of extra hours from our full-time people,” Sodhy said. “That fatigue resulted in some people getting injured. When you are tired you are more likely to experience a fall because the lack of sleep affects your coordination.”

Desperate for financial relief to relieve its employees of burdensome hours, Sodhy approached Kuyler Crocker in late September to ask if there was any way the county could help. Crocker, who represents Exeter and eastern Tulare County on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, asked Tulare County’s Health and Human Services Agency to look into funding to find a way. Crocker said staff was ultimately able to find CARES Act funding EDA was eligible for because it is considered a healthcare district, similar to Kaweah Delta, which the board has approved funding for during the pandemic.

“We were looking at different options to try and give them the help they needed,” Crocker said. “This was a unique situation but we are providing funds to hospital districts, so staff was on board.”

With the influx of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, Sodhy said the district should have enough to get through the end of the year without layoffs. Prior to the pandemic, Sodhy said his board was discussing ways to spend a projected surplus of $174,000, such as purchasing new ambulances to replace its fleet. Since August, EDA transport volumes have begun to return to almost normal but the district won’t likely see those funds until next month.

“Confidence is high we won’t need any layoffs unless there is another strict shut down,” Sodhy said. “While unlikely, we certainly can’t rule that out given the trend in cases here locally and across the country.”

It has also been difficult for the district’s board of directors to meet. Adam Pfenning and Diana Mendez were the only sitting board members for a quarter of the year. Tony Miller resigned from the board following the April meeting, vacating the at-large seat held over from the previous board, seats for Areas 3 and 5 have been vacant since 2018 and has had at least two vacancies since 2017. On July 21, the Board of Supervisors appointed longtime firefighter Juan “Bobby” Martinez to the at-large seat. That means every active board member has to show up for every meeting in order for there to be a meeting, as state law requires a majority of the board, three of five seats in this case, must be present to vote on items. The lack of quorum has meant EDA’s board did not hold a meeting for between April 27 and Aug. 31.

The one silver lining during the pandemic is EDA has been able to better cover Woodlake and the northern part of the county. After posting at the Lemon Cove fire station for years, EDA is now posting out of a small office owned by the Woodlake Fire District on Highway 216 (Naranjo Boulevard), providing it access to Lemon Cove and Three Rivers as well as west to north Visalia. Sodhy said response times to the eastern side of the county have been slightly slower but overall, county providers have remained in compliance for rural areas.

“Woodlake is certainly experiencing better service,” Sodhy said. “It may not be exactly at the level they want, something we are working on, but it is better than before.”

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