In 2000, the Mason County Emergency Ambulance Service Authority seized the property belonging to the New Haven Emergency Medical Service squad. Though NHEMS won a court battle in the seizure of its equipment, it eventually lost the war to the Authority.
POINT PLEASANT – The issue of ambulance service was at the heart of lawsuit in Mason County seven years ago which saw the intervention of the state Supreme Court in the case.
As the Mason County Emergency Ambulance Service Authority awaits construction of its new facility near Point Pleasant, a controversy erupted in 2000 over its seizure of property belonging to the New Haven Emergency Medical Service squad. Though NHEMS won a court battle in the seizure of its equipment, it eventually lost the war to the Authority.
According to court records, prior to 1999 five EMS squads provided ambulance service to Mason County. They were New Haven, Mason, Point Pleasant, Mt. Flower, near the Mason/Jackson county line and Valley in Apple Grove.
In 1988 and 1993, records show discussions were held to merge all squads into a single squad operating out of Point Pleasant. Though it is unclear the stance taken by the others, New Haven unanimously rejected the proposal.
However, in March 1997 all the squads received a letter from Dr. Sam McNeil, the county's then-medical director, urging their attendance at a meeting to be held at the Point Pleasant Public Library. The purpose of this meeting, records show, was to inform the squads that failure to join the proposed county-wide squad would result in them no longer receiving 911 calls or funding from the county.
Up until that time, each squad received an annual $3,000 stipend from the county commission.
Despite the demand, NHEMS' board voted not to join the countywide squad. In response to this, records show, the county placed a padlock on NHEMS' building on 5th Street prohibiting access to their equipment including the two ambulances valued together at nearly $200,000.
NHEMS alleges an unconstitutional taking
About a year later on September 16, 2000, the Commission filed a petition with the circuit court asking it to prohibit NHEMS from liquidating the assets it owned and distributing those assets "as it sees fit." In its petition, then-Commission President Rick Northup, and then-Prosecuting Attorney Diana L. Johnson asked the court "upon hearing of the issues herein set forth, the Court issue an order transferring the assets of said corporation to the County Commission of Mason County, a local government, to be used for a public purpose."
In addition to NHEMS as a corporation, the Commission named George Gibbs, Clyde Weaver, Sharon Stover, Ron Robinson and Nellene Pethtel, individually and as NHEMS' board of directors as defendants in its petition.
According to court records, then-Mason Circuit Judge Clarence L. Watt granted the Commission's petition for use and possession of NHEMS' vehicles on "a temporary basis." As a condition of Watt's September 27, 2000, order, the Commission was to provide liability insurance and proper maintenance of the ambulances while holding NHEMS harmless from any "damages, accidents or liabilities which may be incurred during their use ..."
Court records show on October 5, 2000, NHEMS' legal counsel Dwight Staples of the Huntington law firm of Henderson, Henderson and Staples filed a motion with the Supreme Court asking it to stay Watt's order. In his motion, Staples said the Commission's seizure of NHEMS property was not only a violation of state law since NHEMS is a state chartered corporation, and can only be dissolved by a vote of the board of directors, but also a violation of the board members' Fifth Amendment rights prohibiting the government taking of private property without just compensation.
The high court agreed and, according to records, on October 26, 2000 entered a stay "pending resolution of the question certified by this Court ..."
However, the newly formed Authority would eventually take possession of NHEMS' ambulances. Because they were unable to go on runs during the legal battle, the various certifications for NHEMS squad members lapsed.
Authority realigned to deal with deficits
Though one controversy ended, another soon began. Many county residents, including former NHMES squad members, voiced concern over the deficits the Authority continued to run annually.
As a cost-saving measure, the Commission in December 2002 voted to realign the Authority under the Office of Emergency Services.
Records show that OES and 911center director Chuck Blake took over as Authority director on an interim basis in December 2002, and later full-time in June 2003.
Blake, records show, is paid a $10,000 stipend from the Authority's budget, separate from the $37,257 he receives as OES/911 center director. Prior to Blake, Matthew G. Musgrave served as the Authority's director.
Musgrave, who is the son of Point Pleasant attorney Raymond G. Musgrave, and nephew of former Point Pleasant Mayor and current state Lottery Director John C. Musgrave, took a job with the state Department of Health and Human Services in March 2003. According to information provided by the state Auditor's Office, he works for DHHR as a program manager in their Charleston office, and is paid a salary of $40,980.
According to records provided by the Authority, his salary as director was $31,000.