STURGIS | With the days ticking away before an estimated 4,000 Meade County residents lose their ambulance service, county commissioners agreed Tuesday to try and find long-term methods to pay for that service.
Edward Miller, owner of Rush-No-More RV Resort & Campground east of Sturgis and head of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association, spoke at Tuesday’s commission meeting representing Meade County Citizens for Fair Emergency Services, which was formed after an April 15 decision by the Sturgis City Council to redraw boundaries served by the city's ambulance service.
“This is matter of life and death to everybody in this room, all of our families and anyone who travels through Meade County,” Miller said.
The city council cited continuing shortfalls in revenue to cover ambulance calls outside of city limits, including campgrounds used by those attending the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally, when it voted to redraw the ambulance service’s boundaries.
Residential, rural and campground areas east and north of the city would lose the service effective July 15, just three weeks before the rally officially starts and when the campgrounds will be hosting thousands of motorcyclists from across the nation and other countries.
The Sturgis Ambulance Service would provide service within the city limits of Sturgis, The Fort Meade VA Medical Center, National Forest land to the south of the city, Bureau of Land Management areas and segments of Interstate 90 to the west and east of Sturgis.
Other north and eastern areas of Meade County are served by other ambulance districts, including Newell, Faith and Enning, with southern areas of the county served by Piedmont and Rapid City, and small portions served by Wall and Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Many of the areas that would no longer receive service are in county precincts where a majority of voters on Dec. 18 rejected a proposal to form fire and ambulance districts to help address an $85,000 shortfall in funding for the ambulance service.
The Citizens For Fair Emergency Services, in a letter to the commission, sought reinstatement of county payments to provide services to areas outside of the city and not covered by other ambulance districts.
The group also demanded “an independent forensic audit of the Sturgis Ambulance Service to determine accurate call, cost, staff and billing information” to allow for informed negotiations with the city.
“We all pay property taxes, and we elect our officials, you folks sitting up on that dais, to represent us and make the tough budgeting choices with the revenue that you receive,” Miller said.
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That drew a sharp response from Commissioner Talbot Wieczorek of Piedmont.
“Maybe there’s an ambulance payment we could work out, but you categorically rejected it. Then you turn around it and say we elected you to solve this, and then you dictate the terms by which we can solve it,” Wieczorek said. “That doesn’t work for me.”
Wieczorek said the Sturgis City Council had been heavy-handed in giving affected county residents only 90 days to fund the continuation of ambulance services in their districts.
Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie said the council had been grappling with the issue of ambulance funding for seven years.
“Unfortunately in all those years, there’s never been a movement to resolve this issue, and that, frankly, is why there had to be a deadline,” Ainslie said.
Commission Chairman Ted Seaman assigned Wieczorek and fellow Commissioner Rod Bradley to meet with citizen groups to come up with a funding plan, either through an ambulance district or a yearly fee.
Ainslie said the city council could reconsider redrawing the ambulance boundaries with a bona fide proposal for an election for a governing district or other permanent funding source.
Miller said his group also wants to see a fair resolution.
“I don’t think anybody in our group would be opposed to working with the commission to come up with something that is reasonable, and again reasonable means fair and equitable to everyone in the county,” he said.
Bradley said finding a revenue source is a top concern as the July 15 deadline nears.
“The solution to the problem is a funding option,” he said. "With the deadline looming, we have to put a move on it.”