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Officials in Bledsoe County, Tennessee, are mulling the idea of privatizing the county's ambulance service by contracting with Georgia-based Puckett Emergency Medical Services.

The company will give a presentation to the Bledsoe County Commission Sept. 16 in Pikeville. Officials also expect to receive data from the county service to allow for comparisons.

Bledsoe now has two ambulances on duty 24 hours a day every day with at least one additional ambulance available for on-call duty when the need arises, according to officials.

But Bledsoe's county-owned operation has averaged a loss of more than $150,000 annually, tallying a total loss of more than $1 million between fiscal years 2012-13 and 2018-19, Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley said.

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The Bledsoe County Commission will meet for a special called meeting to hear a proposal from Puckett Emergency Services Monday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. CDT at the Bledsoe County Courthouse at 3150 Main St., Pikeville, Tennessee.

Ridley said the idea is in the discussion stage and is under consideration because commissioners are trying to cut expenses after an 18-cent property tax hike was passed last month in a 2019-20 budget containing about $167,000 more spending than revenue. The ambulance service isn't the only department being eyed for cost-cutting.

"We've gone to every department for cuts," Ridley said.

Other than the budget figures for the department, "there are no issues with the ambulance service," Ridley said. "I think most people are very happy with our service but everyone is always concerned with costs, not only this year, but the next year and the next."

Commission chairman Craig Mercer said commissioners want to see data from the county's ambulance service and Puckett to weigh differences.

In Tennessee, Puckett already serves Sequatchie and Marion counties to Bledsoe's south in the Sequatchie Valley. Puckett also is among those that serve Hamilton County, according to the company's website. In Georgia, Puckett serves Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties in the Chattanooga region, as well as five more central Georgia counties.

Earlier this year, Sequatchie officials signed a second five-year pact with Puckett that added another ambulance to the operation in Dunlap. Sequatchie pays $200,000 a year for the service. Officials in February said the cost stood at around $500,000 a year when Sequatchie operated its own ambulances. Marion County signed a five-year contract in 2017 for service.

Puckett vice president Shane Garrison said in a statement that the company when it expands into a community hires local ambulance personnel and supervisors for the operation, and each contract is customized for the community it serves. Puckett offers various types of training for first responders and residents, Garrison said.

Mercer said he's concerned that a for-profit ambulance service has to think about its operation first, and the community second.

"That's one of the downsides," he said. Mercer said he and commissioners want to compare response times and quality of care and hear from Puckett about how the company will provide a comparably high level of service. He worries that incidents in other counties could cause Puckett to cover those needs with ambulances serving Bledsoe.

On the other hand, privatization will take all the billing headaches out of county hands, he said, and liability and operational expenses would be assumed by the company. He was heartened to hear Puckett would employ Bledsoe's existing ambulance personnel.

"We'll see at the meeting Monday," he said.

Bledsoe commissioners can vote on a contract then, but Mercer hopes they wait till the next week's regular meeting to consider all the information they receive.

"I think Monday night will be a good fact-finding meeting," he said.

Ridley said people attending Monday's meeting, if they want, will have three minutes to comment or ask questions.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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