That’s when the squad lost its ability to pay for fuel for its ambulances on Piedmont’s city-supplied, tax-exempt fuel fleet cards. The city sent the squad a letter on April 6 stating the fleet cards would be inactivated on May 1.
Piedmont Mayor Brian Young said the fuel cards were deactivated because he believed the city cannot legally provide tax-free fuel to any vehicle outside of a city-owned fleet, such as those of the police or fire departments.
The rescue squad is a non-profit ambulance and rescue service that operates six ambulances and two rescue trucks, covering approximately 400 square miles in and around Piedmont.
Young asked the State Department of Revenue’s Motor Fuel Tax Division to give an opinion on the legality of the gas cards. Young received a response on April 19 stating the practice is not legal.
Piedmont rescue squad Chief Phillip Winkles said he believes the mayor’s decision to take away the gas cards began as nothing more than a personal grudge between Young and the squad.
“I’m just trying to operate the rescue squad the way it’s supposed to be to take care of the people … and he’s making it very difficult to do that,” Winkles said.
Since the 1970s, the city has been under contract with the squad to provide money to buy fuel. The $60,000 yearly amount had previously been used to pay invoices for the squad’s fuel cards, but as of this month, Young said, the municipality will begin sending the squad a $5,000 check monthly.
A clause in the contract states that the city will pay an additional $15,000 yearly for the purchase of ambulances and other rescue equipment, as long as it is “mutually agreed upon on an annual basis” between the city and the rescue squad.
The “mutually agreed upon” statement has been at the center of a disagreement between the mayor and the squad. At the behest of Young, the Piedmont City Council agreed at a regular meeting last month to continue paying the extra $15,000 with the stipulation that the squad must give the city its financial audit.
The city has backed off from the threat of stopping that extra $15,000 payment – several council members saying this week that they would not de-fund the squad, even though they agreed to the stipulation last month.
Young said that the squad refuses to give the city an audit. Winkles says the audit sits on his desk, and because the squad is a tax-exempt organization, anyone can come into the office and request to look at it. But as for making a copy of the report, Winkles said that is something he will not do.
“I don’t think that’s good business,” Young said. “Our residents are giving them $75,000 a year. I just think the city deserves the audit.”
In the last couple of months, the squad has spent a few hundred dollars more for fuel than the city provides for, Winkles said, but the majority of the squad’s fuel is covered by the money from the city. While it’s a nuisance for the squad, the loss of the city-supplied fleet cards hasn’t kept them from being able to respond to calls.
The squad has arranged with Norton’s Express Mart on Alabama 9 to keep their ambulances’ tanks full, and Winkles is looking into applying for the squad’s own fleet cards. As a tax-exempt organization, Winkles said, the squad shouldn’t have a hard time getting the fleet cards.
Still, the loss of the fuel cards means one more thing to have to sort out, winkles said.
“Leave us alone,” Winkles said. “We’re not broke. There is nothing in (the squad) that is not operating correctly. It doesn’t belong to the city. It belongs to the citizens of this town. Why mess with it?”
Young denies any personal grudge between himself and the squad.
“We need the rescue squad. I think they try and portray it as I’m against the rescue squad. I’m not. I just want to make sure the rescue squad is going to be there,” Young said. “This may not be the most popular thing I’ve done, but speaking to a lot of people in town, they want to know (about the squad’s financials).”
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.