STURGIS | The Sturgis City Council voted Monday night to redraw boundaries served by the city's ambulance service, a move that could leave approximately 20 percent of Meade County — an estimated 4,000 people — without ambulance service as of July 15.
“As someone who worked in the health field for 35 years, this is the hardest thing I’ve done on this council,” said councilman Terry Keszler in seconding a motion to move forward in changing the boundaries served by the ambulance. It was approved unanimously by the council.
Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie said under the new boundaries Sturgis ambulances would only respond to areas inside the city limits, Bureau of Land Management land and at Fort Meade east of town, U.S. Forest Service land to the south, Boulder Canyon to the west to two miles beyond the Lawrence County line and the Interstate 90 corridor to the east and west.
Areas no longer served would include Blucksberg Mountain subdivision and Pleasant Valley to the east of Sturgis and areas north of Sly Hill, including the Bestgen Addition northwest of town.
Many of the areas include county precincts where voters on Dec. 18 turned aside a proposal to form fire and ambulance districts to help address a $85,000 shortfall in funding for the ambulance service.
Those districts include a number of campgrounds where thousands of visitors stay during the Sturgis motorcycle rally in August.
The council first voted down a proposal to charge campgrounds outside the city limits a fee based on the number of ambulance calls made during last year’s Sturgis motorcycle rally, which attracted nearly 500,000 visitors.
Those proposed fees ranged from $300 for campgrounds that had no ambulance calls last year to $5,100 for campgrounds that had 10 or more calls.
Ainslie said ambulance calls to campgrounds accounted for 3 percent of the total annual calls for the ambulance service, with only 24 percent of the costs recovered.
Total losses for rally-related campground calls were nearly $35,000. The fees to be assessed to campgrounds would have brought in about $25,000, Ainslie said.
Redrawing the boundaries for ambulance service, he said, was the next step in addressing the funding shortfall. The city said it has paid $100,000 annually to subsidize the ambulance service.
With or without redrawing the lines, Ainslie said, the city’s ambulance subsidy for 2020 would be rising to an estimated $140,000 to $160,000 because of the need to replace or refit ambulances nearly at the end of their mileage maximum.
“The city tried to make it very clear that what has been happening for the past several decades, the city bearing the brunt of those costs, cannot realistically continue,” Ainslie said.
Edward Miller, owner and operator of Rush-No-More RV resort and Campground south of 1-90 exit 37 and president of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association, was one of several campground owners present at Monday’s meeting opposed to the proposed campground fees.
“As campground owners we understand that the citizens of Sturgis are paying for a service outside of the city. What I don’t understand is why the county stopped paying for those services,” Miller said.
Other areas of Meade County are covered by ambulances based in Newell, Enning and Faith to the north and east, and services in Piedmont and Rapid City to the southeast.
“The majority of the county currently is included in ambulance and fire districts and they pay for it,” said county commissioner Doreen Creed. “The only people who pay taxes in Meade County that do not pay for ambulance and/or fire were eligible to vote in that recent election.”
The state Department of Health, which licenses ambulance services, requires a 30-day notice for changes in service boundaries. Creed said the 90-day window before the new boundaries take effect gives residents a chance to meet and form plans to continue receiving and pay for ambulance service in their areas.
“There is a lengthy timeline on this, including an election, for a district,” Creed said. “So, you need to start now.
“The county is willing to work with anyone on this,” she said.
Ainslie said other departments in the area are facing funding shortfalls in an era when some patients are unable to pay or when private insurance or Medicaid or Medicare don't cover the entire cost of ambulance services.
“This isn’t just something that just Sturgis is facing,” said Sturgis Ambulance Director Shawn Fischer.
“We’re not the only ones looking at this, but until we do something and open everyone’s eyes out there nothing’s going to change,” she said. “My heart and soul is in this ambulance and for me not to respond to an emergency will kill me.”