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The Little Engine That Couldn’t Get a Franchise


It turns out MEDIC is short for Medical Emergency Ambulance, Inc. The business was started in 1989 by Kermit Tolley and his wife, Sharon. With two Ford trucks, the couple combined their passion for medicine and racecar driving in an effort to serve the people of Western North Carolina. Since then, the business has grown to employ a number of qualified paramedics, running seven real ambulances and other quick-response vehicles.

When Kermit Tolley, Jr. spoke before the commissioners, he said MEDIC had submitted an application to the county for a franchise back in March. After some back-and-forth, he felt he was getting nowhere. He told how MEDIC had been available to help people, covering when county ambulances went out of service, being on standby for community events, and running four-wheel-drives in the winter.

MEDIC has been in business twenty-seven years as a private ambulance company. It has been operating for the last eight under a handshake agreement with the county to help as needed. MEDIC does not charge the county for its services. Tolley thought the arrangement had been working well.

However, Tolley felt he was being “punished by the powers that be.” Call volume from the county has dropped from 2900 to fewer than 600 calls per year – and falling. The company, he said, is “struggling to keep alive.”

Glen Norwood, appearing with his right arm in a sling, said he had worked for Buncombe County twenty years and still serves as a fireman. He remembered a time 6-8 years ago when the county was having trouble staffing ambulances. MEDIC filled in faithfully. He couldn’t see why a business with the same credentials as the county shouldn’t be franchised. “When it comes to an emergency,” he said, “the nearest ambulance needs to be the one responding, not the one from my buddy’s fire department that’s forty minutes away. This is occurring in this county.”

While others spoke of helping people in medical emergencies and staying in business, Sharon Tolley tried another tack. She had taken over the business after her husband’s death in 2006. She was trying to partner with the county as a minority business. She’s a woman and a Native American. What’s more, she’s a native of Buncombe County trying to stay in Buncombe County.

Then, she went for the name drop. It was MEDIC that brought former state senator Martin Nesbitt home for free. She said she got to spend his final minutes with him.

A followup call to Tonya Gibson clarified that MEDIC had been operating under a franchise agreement with the county, but its application to renew, submitted back in March, had been denied. The county’s Senior Staff Attorney Michael Frue provided documents stating the county’s position.

MEDIC had had to reapply for a franchise because a new ordinance limits all county franchise agreements to a five-year term. Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun said his first issue with the franchise application was that MEDIC had supplied a balance sheet when county ordinances require an audited financial statement “in such form and detail as the county may require.”

Secondly, Vehaun’s department recommend, “the emergency transportation franchise be denied because the current Buncombe County EMS plan does not support inserting a private franchise into the emergency response service plan.” A third reason was the negative recommendation from the county’s fire department ambulance providers.

Representing the Buncombe County Rescue Squad and the Fairview, Riceville, Reems Creek, Leicester, and Skyland fire departments, Chief Thad Lewis told how more and more Buncombe County fire departments are starting to provide paramedic services and argued giving the county a monopoly would help hold the line on taxes. “We all have begun to charge for this service, and the fees we collect help balance our budgets and allow us to keep our tax rates low,” he said.

Further arguing in the name of taxpayers, the fire chiefs indicated it would not be proper for a for-profit company to be getting business through the public dispatch system. Thirdly, the chiefs feared dispatchers would get confused working with a private company. And lastly, the chiefs “felt that our county is currently being protected by the best quality and professional services available.”

For those reasons, Vehaun’s department recommended approval of the application for convalescent transportation, conceding needs outstrip the county’s resources in that field. But he recommended denying the application for emergency transportation, to best serve the interests of the public.

In Other Public Comment –

Representing citizens of East Asheville, Jeanie Martin advocated for a new library. The room was pretty much full, and when she asked those endorsing her message to stand, half the room obliged.

The library had been built in 1965 by the City of Asheville, in conjunction with the East Asheville community center and fire station. The county took over operations as part of the water agreement in the 1980s. Since then, it has been a county operation in a city-owned building. Since 2002, the county has included the building in capital improvement plans, but it continues to be rolled off. The 2015 CIP plan scheduled upgrades for 2019.

Martin said the East Asheville library is the fourth busiest branch in the county. It would have the second-most traffic if it were opened Mondays. East Asheville’s population is going up, up, up; but the library is half the size of new libraries. The collection of books is relatively small, but there is no more room for books. People must stand on stools to reach the upper shelves.

Since the city leased the community center, groups have had to pay churches for meeting space. Parking is insufficient and dangerous. The building is not energy-efficient, it suffers termite damage and broken concrete, and it has no indoor bathrooms. In explaining a host of uses for a local media center, Martin quoted Robert Putnam, “People may go to the library looking for information, but they find each other there.”

Martin said the good news is East Asheville residents love their library. They have gotten organized, held public meetings, and collected over 1700 signatures on a petition. The group is requesting that the city and county work together and settle on a location and design ASAP.

Eight-year-old Mitchell Cohen then read his winning essay. To raise awareness, library supporters asked school-age children to write about their dream library. Cohen’s was an allusion to the old riddle, “What’s black and white and read all over?” He wanted a red carpet, red doors, red rooms, . . .

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