Ambulance proposal too taxing, panel concludesA Superior Fire Department-run ambulance service is not a viable option for taxpayers.
By: Shelley Nelson, Superior Telegram
A Superior Fire Department-run ambulance service is not a viable option for taxpayers.
That was the conclusion drawn by five of seven members of the Ambulance Task Force after a three-month review of the fire department’s proposal and service already available.
Most members agreed the potential costs to taxpayers made the proposal undesirable.
“From the start of our task force meetings, I was confident that our city’s fire department was capable of providing ambulance service,” said Superior Finance Director Jean Vito. “The questions I had, though, was the cost, and was there a legitimate reason to change from the current service provided by Gold Cross.”
Vito noted several deficiencies in the fire department’s proposal, including underestimates of expenses and overestimates in revenues the service would create. Vito concluded the fire department’s proposal would result in deficits averaging $542,750 annually with a cumulative deficit exceeding $2.7 million in five years. With restrictions on levy increases, and the potential to cut other services to make up the shortfall, Vito said she recommended the city continue with Gold Cross.
Local taxpayers do not support ambulance service in the property tax levy, and haven’t since Douglas County eliminated its government run service in 1996.
The projected shortfall is slightly less than Douglas County’s experience during the last five years it operated a countywide ambulance service, which prompted the board to eliminate the service and contract with Gold Cross.
County taxpayers paid, on average, $556,147 annually to fund the county ambulance service during its last five years of operation.
“In some instances I felt that we spent more time asking Gold Cross to defend themselves rather than hearing from our fire department how they would provide a higher level service at a lower cost,” Vito said.
However, Steve Panger, a member of the task force representing the Superior Fire Department, said public records attained from the Wisconsin Office of Emergency Medical Services suggest Fire Chief Jim Rigstad’s projections are vindicated. Gold Cross reported 2,869 billable runs in 2008, 59 more runs than projected in the final fire department proposal.
The number of runs the fire department would make annually were among the numbers used by Vito in calculating the potential deficit taxpayers would have to subsidize.
“This task force has really dealt with the financial side of the picture really,” Panger said. He said the fire department’s faster response times and the continuity of care the firefighter paramedics would provide would have distinct advantages for the patient.
The fire department response time is four minutes or less in 90 percent of its runs.
However, county supervisors on the panel continually questioned those response times if the fire department were to respond to rural communities in an emergency, and were not persuaded the fire department would meet the needs of rural Douglas County as effectively as Gold Cross.
Supervisor Kay Johnson said she met with the Towns Association and town officials concerns included what the city-run ambulance would be able to provide and at what cost. She said rural communities need paramedic services like those provided by Gold Cross, and they don’t need additional expenses when budgets are stretched already.
Weighing the interests of rural Douglas County, quality and cost, Supervisor Jack Sweeney came to a similar conclusion.
It’s a false assumption that because Gold Cross makes money, the fire department would too, Sweeney said. He said while the fire department’s Plan B was to raise fees if expenses weren’t covered by the service, the reality is the sources of revenue in 50 to 60 percent of the billable runs make that improbable.
Dr. Robert Sellers said he talked to medical personnel and was unable to find any complaints or concerns about the care delivered by Gold Cross. With a price tag of $500,000 placed on taxpayers, and Gold Cross’ backing from the Mayo Clinic and state of the art record system, he said the Superior Fire Department’s proposal wasn’t a “viable option for our community.”
The panel presents its findings to the Superior City Council’s committee of the whole March 16. Already, some city councilors are considering sending the issue to a nonbinding referendum in November.
Councilor Greg Mertzig, who sought the task force to determine the viability of the fire department-run ambulance service, questioned the panel about the idea after it reached a majority consensus the service would be taxpayer funded.
Warren Bender, councilor and chairman of the task force who was in the minority Monday night, said he thinks the issue should go to the voters. He concluded the revenue generated by the service would exceed fire department projections, making the proposal “feasible.”
That conclusion was drawn based on an “egregious” misinterpretation of numbers, Vito said of numbers attributed to her.
“Anything’s feasible if you want to pay for it,” Sellers said.