By Ralph Schwartz
Sam Crawford is asking his colleagues on the Whatcom County Council to consider cutting off funding for the city-county EMS service, Medic One, and having the county fire districts go it alone with ambulance service.
At Crawford’s prompting, the council’s Finance and Administrative Services committee voted 2-1 this afternoon to have the full council discuss pulling out of Medic One at tonight’s meeting.
The city of Bellingham and the county share the costs of Medic One. Both governments are expected to contribute more than $1 million from their general funds to support a $7.9 million 2013 budget.
If Crawford has his way, the county’s contribution — $1.4 million — may not come.
The county councilman is playing what looks like a game of chicken with the city over EMS service. The motion voted on in committee showed his intent to get the county to opt out of Medic One if Bellingham won’t cut its expenses by $400,000 or more.
The Medic One budget has a $1.1 million shortfall due to no growth in the number of calls for service (and in the accompanying fees), fewer reimbursements from Medicaid and Medicare, and raises in a new union contract between the city and its firefighters. The 2013 budget must account for two years of raises because the 2012 budget was not written to anticipate any changes to the firefighters’ pay.
“I can swallow making up the Medicare difference, but when we have direct-hire costs as part of this, as a result of what the city is doing with its employees to this extent … that is too high,” Crawford said of the budget shortfall.
“We’re facing a crisis right now in which the Bellingham city Fire Department apparently just assumes … that whatever money they want to give in labor negotiations … spend on chase cars and so forth, that they’re just going to grab it, and that’s not right,” Crawford said. The “chase car” is apparently a reference to EMS 6, an emergency support vehicle already slated for elimination on Jan. 1, 2014.
His proposal has five parts:
1) Take EMS funding out of the county’s 2013-14 budget, which might be voted on tonight.
2) Ask the city to eliminate EMS 6 on Jan. 1, 2013 — one year ahead of schedule — at a cost savings of $500,000.
3) Inquire of the city how a $400,000 cost reduction would affect service.
4) Meet with county attorneys to see if it is possible to break the Medic One contract with the city at the end of this year, which would be one year early.
5) Ask county fire districts if they could “ramp up” to provide countywide ambulance service six weeks from today — on Jan. 1, 2013.
If his proposal breaks down in any part — for example, if the county attorney advises that the contract cannot be broken — then Crawford’s idea would be to add Medic One to the budget in two weeks, at the Dec. 4 meeting. For that to happen, the council would have to introduce the budget item at tonight’s meeting, presumably right after cutting Medic One out.
It’s hard to imagine a majority of council members approving this move. Council member Ken Mann voted with Crawford in committee to pass the proposal to the full council because Mann knew none of it committed the council to anything.
After past rancor between the city and the county, now almost all involved appear to be on board with the current plan to restructure Medic One to give the county more of a role in decision making. The complex new contracts that would put this new system in place are 80 to 85 percent completed, county budget advisor Dewey Desler said. County Executive Jack Louws has said he would like to bring the new Medic One structure before the council for approval early next year.
Once the new system is in place, the executive and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville intend to lead a discussion over how to save money in the system and avoid completely draining the reserve fund. The $1.1 million hit budgeted for 2013 would bring the reserve fund down to about $3 million. All agree that’s a trend that can’t be sustained.