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Jeff Davis County officials fire local EMS director amid leadership, budget concerns

Sally Beauvais
Marfa Public Radio
The Jeff Davis County Courthouse pictured in 2018.

Jeff Davis County officials on Tuesday voted to fire the county’s EMS Director Peggy Fonseca, citing concerns about her leadership, volunteer shortages and a strained EMS budget.

County commissioners voted at a public meeting to fire Fonseca effective immediately, with County Judge Curtis Evans casting the only vote against the termination.

After the vote, a sheriff’s deputy escorted Fonseca out of the county courthouse at the request of Commissioner Royce Laskoskie.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Laskoskie said in an interview outside the courthouse. “There have been budget overruns - not just this year but last year also - and the county, after doing some math, doesn’t have the funds to continue at that rate of drain, so something had to be done.”

Fonseca was hired in 2022 to lead the historically volunteer-staffed Jeff Davis County Ambulance operation after the county’s longtime EMS director Vicki Fowler announced her retirement.

During her time on the job, the county has struggled to retain EMS volunteers and has transitioned into what County Judge Curtis Evans recently described, in an open letter published in the Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch, as a “hybrid” operation of volunteers and some paid staffers, including Fonseca.

But the ambulance service has faced pressing financial challenges this year. According to county records, the EMS service’s budget for paying four part-time EMTs had been completely drained ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.

Commissioners were originally set to discuss Fonseca’s job status in a private portion of the meeting, but Fonseca opted to have the discussion publicly before an unusually packed crowd of spectators.

Addressing Fonseca directly, two commissioners said they had spoken with former EMS volunteers who said they no longer wished to serve with her in charge.

“Every volunteer I’ve talked to - it’s the leadership, that’s what it comes back to every time,” Commissioner Roy Hurley said.

“I’ve met with those volunteers too, and they’ve all said they left because of you,” added Laskoskie. “They all said the minute you are gone, they would be happy to come back to work.”

During the discussion, Hurley also took issue with the amount of overtime pay Fonseca had received in recent months, saying it amounted to more than $26,800.

Absent from the conservation Tuesday was any mention of a settlement agreement Fonseca recently entered into with the state health department over claims that she failed to follow protocol while responding to a person who had a heart attack, as the Big Bend Sentinel has reported.

Fonseca couldn’t be reached for an interview after the meeting, but she defended her time as EMS director during the discussion on Tuesday, saying her operation had struggled to retain volunteers and had moved to paying part-time staff due to challenges ranging from injuries to family issues to burnout.

“The whole reason people volunteer is they volunteer when they have time to give to the community,” she said. “We are needing people, we don’t have a lot of people to choose from.”

Fonseca also pointed to broader regional challenges in recruiting EMTs, saying that when it comes to paid positions, surrounding counties pay “significantly better.”

“Where we pay $11.50 [per hour], they’re paying $15, $16, and that’s for the lowest guy on the totem pole,” she said.

Evans has pointed to similar challenges, writing in his May 9 open letter that the county has faced “limited resources of certified personnel.”

“If you look around at our neighbors, we are all experiencing shortage of EMS staff and cost overruns,” he wrote.

In an interview Wednesday, Evans defended Fonseca’s work as EMS director.

“She does a good job,” he said. “She may be brash, she may be hard to get along with, but the way she does things is by the book.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners addressed the current budget shortfalls by voting to reallocate $51,000 from the county’s general fund to maintain ambulance services while they figure out next steps.

“I have a very good feeling we’ll move forward,” Evans said. “We’re not stopping just because we lost someone.”

Laskoskie echoed that sentiment.

“The EMS will not stop functioning in Jeff Davis County,” he said.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.