By Ralph Schwartz
As promised, Whatcom County Council member Sam Crawford proposed during last night’s budget debate to cut funding to Medic One, which provides life-saving emergency response in Bellingham and the county.
His proposal, which included breaking the contract with the city that calls for jointly funding Medic One through 2013, generated a great deal of debate as well as sympathy for Crawford’s position. However, he suddenly withdrew his motion just before it was to come to a vote.
Council members were visibly surprised at Crawford’s decision to withdraw his motion
, and he gave no explanation. One thing appeared certain. Crawford didn’t have the votes to get his budget amendment passed. Crawford ended the debate immediately after council member Bill Knutzen said he would support Medic One.
In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Crawford said he withdrew his budget amendment because he knew he didn’t have the votes. This became apparent to Crawford after council member Bill Knutzen said he would support Medic One.
“I will support the contract” with the city, Knutzen said. But he had a reservation.
“If this doesn’t work, and this kind of behavior (from the city) continues … we need to have some sort of an exit strategy.”
In the eyes of many on the county council, the city has behaved badly since the current Medic One contract was signed in 2005. In 2008, Bellingham firefighters refused to train paramedics working for a county fire district because of a labor dispute.
In the view of Knutzen and Crawford, the latest affront was Bellingham’s irresponsible spending in the 2013 budget, including what they perceived to be a generous new labor contract with city firefighters.
What sticks in the craw of other council members, too, are cost increases they have no authority to control. Medic One has a $1.1 million budget shortfall in 2013, in part due to the new firefighters’ union contract. A reduction in federal and state Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements is also to blame.
County and city attorneys are in the midst of writing new contracts that will reorganize Medic One, with the county and city sharing control on a new oversight board.
As council member Ken Mann put it, the county is held hostage by the EMS contract in its current form, and there is some justification for seeking to break it as Crawford had proposed.
“I don’t feel like we’re being dishonest” if council doesn’t honor the contract, Mann said.
“It’s not in good faith in this time to jam us with this huge price increase,” he said.
Pete Kremen said the council had to do the responsible thing and stick to the contract, but he understood Mann’s point of view.
“I agree with the sentiment expressed by council member Mann,” Kremen said. “Who’s really not bargaining in good faith here? This council has every right and every reason to feel that we need to make a statement.”
Kremen and Knutzen weren’t going to vote with Crawford, and neither was Barbara Brenner. (Council member Carl Weimer was silent during the debate but was almost certain to vote against Crawford’s amendment, too. He had opposed it earlier Tuesday in committee.)
“We look like politicians when we sit here making a statement when we screwed up, period,” Brenner said. “It’s not the city’s fault, it’s the county’s fault because we did that contract.”
“Somebody didn’t look at the fine print, and we got screwed. But it’s the law,” she said.