Of aligators and swamps

The lamented Ol’ Editor of this paper had a favorite saying: It’s hard to concentrate on draining the swamp when you’re up to your eyeballs in alligators.

That’s pretty much the situation Marion County finds itself in with three of its most enduring issues: ambulances, roads, and economic development.

With just two weeks remaining before a county commissioner election that features almost Trump-like populist overtones, how voters and politicians come to terms with these issues could set the stage for years to come.

Fewer EMTs than ambulances?

An already planned news story this week about an apparent shortage of ambulance attendants hit closer to home Monday after a call involving one of our employees in Marion had to be answered by a Hillsboro ambulance.

Having seemingly fewer on-call EMTs than ambulances isn’t unique to Marion County. Last week, for example, a nearby community facing the same challenge considered increasing pay for on-call attendants. Even with a proposed raise — which that community rejected — EMTs there would get less per hour than what Marion County pays. So pay may not be the answer.

Finding sufficient part-timers — whom Marion County no longer refers to as volunteers — seems to be a more acute problem in Marion than elsewhere in the county, according to our analysis of almost eight weeks of ambulance calls.

We haven’t been made privy to the inner workings of the ambulance service but we do note that ever since several people — all, perhaps coincidentally, male — were selected for paid training or full-time jobs, the mainly female group of reliable on-call attendants in Marion seems to have grown scarce.

We also wonder a bit about the county’s new penchant for referring to EMTs as part-timers instead of volunteers. While it’s true they are paid, few seem to be in it for the money — and those who were might have been understandably disappointed if not selected for paid training or full-time status.

Getting back to treating this important community service as just that — something honorable that people volunteer to provide — might be a good first step.

Meanwhile, what definitely needs to change are arcane regulations requiring that an ambulance cannot respond or transport a patient without having two fully trained EMTs onboard. Why the second attendant, whose sole job might be to drive and help lift, needs to have complete EMT training is a mystery.

In law enforcement, police and sheriff’s departments nationwide typically insist on having two officers in each police car. Having just one officer per car is considered dangerous. It’s no less dangerous in rural area like ours. In fact, it might even be more dangerous. But practicality wins out over bureaucratic dictates when one-officer squads are all such areas can afford.

Having just one EMT per ambulance for most calls would not only be more affordable but might also be safer if the alternative is waiting half an hour or more for an ambulance to arrive.

The people who can change this are people you will be voting for or against on Aug. 2. Let your state representative know you care more about this one practical thing he or she can accomplish than you do about guns, abortions, immigration, or any of the other hot-button issues legislators generally are powerless to deal with.

Our crumbling infrastructure

Despite not having as many problems as those that spurred an outpouring of concern last summer, the county’s roads remain in less than ideal condition. Just this week we report elsewhere in this issue how Old 56 (190th Rd.) is falling into the Cottonwood River, how a grader windrow damaged the undercarriage of a car, and how a rickety bridge too costly to inspect is likely to be closed.

The only viable long-term solution is to reduce the number of roads maintained and to create some form of tax structure through fuel or registration taxes to support it. The first part depends on county commissioners; the second may once again depend on legislators to act.

Whatever the solution, our infrastructure — along with our ambulances and economic development — should have unquestioned No. 1 priority in budgeting. The dozens of other “wouldn’t it be nice if…” budget items need to make way. And that includes the ever-more-generous pay raises that virtually every government body seems to be lining up to give its employees.

Un-developing the economy

The most devastating news of the week came with Tuesday’s announcement that Staub International is closing its Marion store. The closure will eliminate many local jobs, cost tens of thousands of dollars in city and county tax revenue, and endanger the remaining implement dealerships in the county — which, like car dealers, find it useful to have competitors nearby.

A handful of promising economic development victories in recent weeks were more than offset by this dramatic departure, which seemed to catch a burgeoning plethora of paid and volunteer developers and committee members off guard.

One lesson to be learned: Live by the chain, die by the chain. As some members at a school board meeting pointed out last week, precious few of our local businesses — our locally owned newspaper among them — remain owned by local interests.

Distant corporations — whether they be Straub, Wal-Mart, Alco, or even our out-of-county-owned competition in the newspaper business — are governed not by community loyalty and lifelong ties but only by the transitory nature of the bottom line. A few bad accounting periods here or elsewhere in the chain, and our link vanishes forever.

Developers intent on bringing in outside businesses to add to our local economy should be wary. A home-grown business is almost always likely to be a greater boon to business than one based in some far-off city.

Likewise, the county has a choice to make: Will it seek, somewhat as Hillsboro has done over the years, to generate jobs, largely in semi-skilled areas? Or will it recognize that the primary benefits of the Marion County “brand” are not a largely untrained work force but rather arts, crafts, and recreational living?

The decision plays out in how a city like Marion responds to its housing survey, which found a staggering percentage of local homes in need of substantial repair. Small, inexpensive houses may lure more people, but many of them will find the homes little more than bedrooms to be used in between work and shopping elsewhere. Worse yet, for those new residents with more tattoos than scruples or skills, they may be little more than homes away from their more frequent home in Marion County Jail.

Visit Cottonwood Falls or Council Grove and you’ll find homes better kept, vibrant businesses in fully restored historic structures, and a sense of optimism that seems to ellude Marion. Even Peabody, its economy devastated by proximity to Newton and Wichita, seems to have better-kept residential areas and, like Florence and Strong City, more reliably open sit-down restaurants than Marion.

We would love nothing more than to point with pride to positive developments, and there are a few — one new and one impending bakery, an impending bar and grill, and other positive accomplishments. But we also must point out that, in branding, which is what economic development is all about, the most important thing is to offer a singular vision and put all support behind it.

Pragmatically, for Marion County to succeed, it’s future is not in industry — which it could have been had it approved a landfill. It’s in tourism and resort development. Getting on that bandwagon, prioritizing the roads that will support it, and providing prompt and reliably ambulance service meritorious of such a community is where our heads need to be.

— Eric Meyer

Last modified July 23, 2016