Funding for a critical training program for Grays Harbor’s first responders is in jeopardy after a recent reversal of opinion from the state on that funding source. Legal Council Art Blauvelt explained to the Grays Harbor Transit Board of Directors at their meeting this week that the state auditor’s office changed their opinion about the funding during a recent audit. Blauvelt said, “I believe that the Transit Authority met the requirements of the 2001 and the 2002 audit, it’s just that the auditor has now changed the description of the definitions. So, that’s where we are.”

Art Blauvelt’s update to the GH Transit Board of Commissioners

Board President, County Commissioner, and former Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines said during the meeting, “The problem that we’re having now – and we’ve seen this at the city and then at the county, you have a process or a policy of doing something and it’s reviewed and it’s fine by the auditor and then two, three, audits down the road they don’t like the way that you’re doing it and so they change the rules.”

The funding has been questioned before, in 2017 we detailed the $200,000 earmark that supports the Grays Harbor EMS and Trauma Care Council, which was established by the Washington EMS and Trauma Act of 1990. We’ve detailed and followed this funding for several years.

Frank Shere from Grays Harbor EMS said during the public comment period earlier this week, “We’re trying to find a solution to this big issue that’s on the table right now. Because without funding Grays Harbor EMS is probably done. We’ve explored other avenues and stuff, right now with no income and classes going on – we’ve limited our classes but it’s not a bright future.”

In years past, $170-thousand of the funds would cover training and grant costs to train all first responders in the county. Smaller fire districts that might not have the funds to send a new recruit off to training could utilize the program to offset funding their own. The remaining $30-thousand of the annual funds is usually earmarked for equipment purchases for firefighters and EMTs and has been used to fill the gaps in funding for important gear.

The Transit Board, which is made up of all three county commissioners and mayors from Aberdeen, Ocean Shores, and Elma, discussed finding other funding sources for the program but that’s a discussion they’ve been having for more than the past 5 years. For now, the transit authority will follow state law and the new opinion and cease funding of the EMS training program.

The Transit said the following in a press release on September 18th, 2020:

Since 1983, the Grays Harbor Transportation Authority has granted Grays Harbor EMS, Fire Districts and Cities in Grays Harbor County over $7 million for training and equipment.

The Grays Harbor Transit Authority was formed under RCW 36.57 in 1974. RCW 36.57.010(3) states “Public transportation function” means the transportation of passengers and their incidental baggage by means other than by chartered bus, sightseeing bus, together with the necessary passenger terminals and parking facilities or other properties necessary for passenger and vehicular access to and from such people-moving systems, and may include contracting for the provision of ambulance services for the transportation of the sick and injured: PROVIDED, That such contracting for ambulance services shall not include the exercise of eminent domain powers: PROVIDED, FURTHER, That nothing shall prohibit an authority from leasing its buses to private certified carriers or prohibit the county from providing school bus service.

Over the years, contracts have been in place with GH EMS for training and equipment grants based on budget approval by the GH Transit Board members.

The Audit teams from the State Auditor’s office have routinely questioned this practice of granting EMS funding during each audit cycle over many years. In 2002, an audit finding was documented regarding the EMS funding process. Corrective measures were put in place with the assistance of the County Prosecuting Attorney working with the Auditor’s office to draft annual agreements with GH EMS and even after that date, has been an
item of interest with the audit team. However, there has never been an official statutory regarding this matter until now. The September 2020 Statutory from the State Auditor’s office indicates that training is not allowed for the City and Fire District personnel because they are not employed by Grays Harbor Transit and GH EMS does not directly provide ambulance service described in RCW 36.57.010(3).

According to Al Rose, Director of Legal Affairs at the State Auditor’s office: The only mention of “ambulance services” in Chapter 36.57 RCW, refers to the transportation authority’s ability to contract for “ambulance services for the transportation of the sick and injured.” RCW 36.57.010 (3). RCW 36.57.040 (5). The plain meaning of these provision is that the Authority can contract to acquire ambulance services when needed to medically transport those individuals utilizing public transportation who have become sick and or injured.

So, it was determined by the State Auditor’s Offices, Director of Washington State Legal Affairs, that the Grays Harbor Transit Authority should not be paying for the costs associated with training personnel, which are not employed by the Authority.

As stated, the Grays Harbor Transit Authority should only be paying for costs associated with providing public transportation to the community, and that can clearly be identified as a “Public Transportation Function, per RCW 36-57. These laws, and similar ones for Cities, Counties, and other Special Purpose Districts are designed to protect the public by ensuring agencies spend their public funds only on things that can be shown to provide a “direct” benefit to the funding agency.

While Grays Harbor Transit has been the primary source of funding for the Grays Harbor EMS for several years, this topic has been discussed on numerous occasions over the years. Even though this determination by the State Auditor’s office was not unexpected, it is an issue that had to be resolved. Now all the stakeholders can search to find a way to fund the GHEMS as similar entities are funded in other parts of the state.