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Audit is called for

Commissioners unanimously approved an audit of the county’s MedStar program by the Clerk of Court.

County Manager Karen Hawes said she hopes the audit will by completed in November, before county staff asks commissioners to consider privatizing the service.

Clerk of Court Charlie Green said while he’s hopeful he can make Hawes’ deadline, he has his doubts.

“I don’t know what we’re going to find,” Green said. “I don’t know how they’re keeping their records.”

Commissioner Tammy Hall expressed her own doubts about privatizing the service, before the audit is completed.

In 2010 the county completed construction of a new aircraft hanger for MEDSTAR and purchased a new helicopter to the tune of about $5 million in all.

The clerk’s audit will come in addition to an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and Hawes‘ internal review of the program.

FAA inspectors were scheduled to visit the county Wednesday, as part of that investigation, county spokeswoman Denise Scott stated last week.

But the inspector did not arrive as scheduled, Hawes stated. They now plan to meet with her and conduct an inspection Sept. 25, she stated.

FAA Spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen declined to comment.

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Lee County’s top administrator told commissioners at their Tuesday meeting she knew the county’s medical flight program failed to meet federal regulations in the run-up to its suspension.

The fact she didn’t promptly pass along that information to commissioners angered at least two of them.

County Manager Karen Hawes said Public Safety managers told her the county’s Medstar program was prohibited from billing for flights because of that failure — several days before they publicly announced the program’s suspension.

“Staff was keeping me informed and up to date,” Hawes said. “That was the time we made our determination that we were going to suspend the operations.”

The failure cost the county roughly $3.5 million — including $3 million the county billed in violation of federal rules and flights that had to be provided free of charge.

Hawes didn’t tell commissioners about the county’s inability to bill for flights, although she admitted it played a role in the decision to suspend the program.

Commissioners Tammy Hall and Brian Bigelow said county management routinely conceals information from commissioners.

“This is only one of many issues that not one elected official was made aware of,” Hall said. “I’m frustrated that when an elected official brings concerns to different management, it takes an act of God to get them reviewed.”

“Literally, I’m told ‘Back away, do this, do that,’ then only to find out, ‘Wow, I wasn’t wrong,’” Hall said.

Hawes also remained silent last month as Public Safety Director John Wilson and EMS Chief Kim Dickerson publicly claimed the program was suspended to seek a voluntary accreditation. At that time, she did not return calls for comment.

The two Public Safety managers repeatedly denied there were other factors behind the program’s suspension. For more than a week, they didn’t respond to The News-Press’ questions about the failure to meet federal safety requirements and the erroneous billings.

Bigelow called on Hawes to resign, saying she had lost the commission’s support and it would be in the county’s best interest.

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“I think you’re just not suitable for the job,” he said.

Hawes told the commission she would answer media inquiries Tuesday, but she refused to answers questions from The News-Press immediately after the meeting. She did not return subsequent calls to her cellphone and office.

Wilson and Dickerson were absent from Tuesday’s meeting. Hawes said she asked them to forgo the public forum in favor of gathering information on Medstar — almost three weeks after the program was abruptly halted.

Commissioner Frank Mann questioned that decision.

“It might be said that it sounds like you’re trying to protect the people who in fact know, day to day, know what was happening,” Mann said.

Hawes asked Wilson and Dickerson to gather the information for an internal investigation her office is conducting.

Wilson and Dickerson are not under investigation, she said.

The county didn’t have a pilot training program in place until July, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That’s about 20 months after county officials purchased the newer helicopter and could have gone to work on the program.

Pilots need to complete the training, before the county could begin billing for flights.

“That was one of things all of the pilots were pushing them on,” former Medstar pilot Arnold McAllister said. “At least we could work on the training manual.”

Despite the federal requirements, county officials sent out bills for $3 million. The collections will be canceled and county officials will seek to refund approximately $320,000 that was paid.

“As far as I know, it was not intentional,” Hawes said. “It was a mistake.”

Misty Turle demanded commissioners hold Dickerson, Wilson and other public safety officials accountable for mismanaging the program that, she said, saved her daughter’s life after a 2005 hit and run.

“If they knew about this, they should be fired,” Turle said. “It is their job, we expect them to know and we compensate them for it.”

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