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LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell sold the county ambulance service this week and, in the process, alienated a local elected official.

Heiskell signed a five-year contract with Puckett EMS on Wednesday. Beginning next month, the Austell, Ga., company will exclusively provide ambulance services to county residents for $250,000 per year from the local government.

Puckett EMS Vice President Terry Johnson said the company will absorb all the county's emergency services employees, which he estimated as 70-80 jobs. As part of the deal, Puckett EMS also will buy emergency equipment from Walker County for $1.35 million and build a garage in Walker County and employ three mechanics to maintain ambulances it uses in Tennessee and northwest Georgia.

Heiskell chose Puckett over Fort Oglethorpe-based Angel EMS, which bid $210,000 per year. Angel CEO Dewayne Wilson also was going to let Walker County get any of the money that Angel EMS recovered from people who had unpaid ambulance bills from the last three months.

For accounts older than three months, Walker County would take 60 percent of what Angel EMS recovered. However, experts in ambulance service operations estimate companies recover less than 5 percent of long-term unpaid accounts.

Wilson, who is also the county coroner, expressed frustration in an internal email Monday after Heiskell told him she was signing with Puckett EMS. The Times Free Press obtained a copy of the email.

He said Angel helped drive Walker County residents to the hospital when the county's employees were stretched too thin.

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Puckett EMS, whose Dade County location is shown in this file photo, is taking over patient transport for Hutcheson Medical Center.

"I can not (sic) begin to tell you how disappointed we are in Bebe Heiskell's decision to award a contract to Puckett EMS today at a private meeting," he said. "The tireless work you have done providing back-up services to Walker County 24/7 for the last six years apparently meant very little to her."

This is not the first time Wilson has expressed frustration with Heiskell, who began looking for a company to take over the county's ambulance service in January. Wilson told the Times Free Press in August that he and Heiskell negotiated for seven months before agreeing that Walker County would pay Angel EMS $225,000 a year.

Then Heiskell announced that Hutcheson Medical Center would take over the ambulance service. She said the hospital's board agreed to pay Walker County $2 million. Wilson said at the time that he was "blindsided."

That deal didn't happen and Heiskell opened the process up to bidders in September.

Puckett EMS offered a better rate for patients. The company will charge a base rate of $850, plus $12 per mile. Angel EMS offered a base rate of $950, plus $16.50 per mile.

Both are lower than what Walker County charges — $1,100 base and $20 per mile.

"I was very reluctant to go outside the county with it," Heiskell said, concerning Angel EMS' local roots. "But I felt this was the right thing to do for this community."

Puckett EMS also provides ambulances in Chattanooga and East Ridge; Dade County, Ga.; and Marion and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee

Heiskell said she told Wilson and Johnson privately on Monday that she was signing with Puckett EMS because Wilson asked to talk face to face. She said the three of them discussed "what we would do in the event we wanted to renegotiate the supplement" — the amount of money Walker County will pay Puckett EMS every year.

Johnson said that nobody actually negotiated the deal at the private meeting, though.

"Our proposal stayed the same," he said. "I told (Heiskell) that: Our bid was our bid. We made it public. We can't change it."

Wilson remembered what led to the meeting slightly differently. He said Walker County Fire Chief Randy Camp asked him to come into the office because Heiskell wanted to see him.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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