EMTs Turn Out in Force for Ambulance Fund Discussion; NFD Internal Conflict Aired
NORTHAMPTON — A proposal by Mayor David Narkewicz to change the way the city’s ambulance service is funded got a green light from the City Council’s Public Safety Committee last Monday night, and is now headed to the full City Council, despite concerns expressed by Fire Department management and labor.
The committee voted 3-1 to recommend rescinding the so-called “Ambulance Receipts Reserved for Appropriations” account, in place since 2003, and to deposit ambulance revenues into the general fund instead. Last fiscal year the ambulance service grossed $1.9 million in collections and paid out nearly $1.85 million in expenses, including almost $450,000 in employee stipends.
City Councilors Jesse Adams, Owen Freeman-Daniels and David Murphy voted to recommend the mayor’s plan, in spite of a request from International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 108 president Michael Hatch to table discussion until the union can weigh in on it.
“I wasn’t persuaded that eliminating the account would adversely impact the ambulance service,” committee chairman and At-large City Councilor told Northampton Media.
Ward 1 Councilor Maureen Carney cast the only opposing vote, citing language in the firefighters’ contract that specifically refers to the account.
“If it was bargained into the contract, it has to be bargained out of the contract,” Carney said.
The city’s ambulance service, staffed by Fire Department paramedics and EMTs (emergency medical technicians), makes money through third-party billing of insurance companies. That money is deposited into the ambulance account, which pays for salaries, overtime, employee stipends, operating costs, capital and equipment spending related to running the department’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) division.
Deputy EMS Fire Chief Christopher Norris approaches the City Council on a quarterly basis for appropriations from the account. The council has consistently approved Norris’ recommendations, despite protests from Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene Tacy, who once referred to the EMS stipends as “Fortune 500 bonuses.”
The ambulance receipts, Mayor Narkewicz said, would still be tracked within the city’s general fund with their own line item, but the Fire Department and its EMS operations would be fully integrated and granted a yearly budget appropriation just like any other city department.
Narkewicz said he wants to eliminate the account because the ambulance service has proven to be self-supporting and no longer needs the separate bookkeeping mechanism to show taxpayers the venture is paying for itself.
“It’s more of an accounting thing than an operational thing,” the mayor told the committee.
But when pressed by Ward 5 Councilor David Murphy, Narkewicz declined to promise that any excess ambulance money wouldn’t be used for other city purposes, after the department is funded and contractual obligations are met.
“I have to assert that this is the City of Northampton’s fire and EMS department,” Narkewicz told the committee. He added that money from “Receipts Reserved for Appropriations” accounts may be used for “any lawful municipal purpose,” according to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.
Councilor Murphy said one advantage of funding the ambulance service through the general fund would mean that negotiated stipends couldn’t be “held hostage” by the City Council, referring to an failed attempt by Tacy last year to block those payments.
The Fire Department started running ambulances in 2003, but the operation became full-time in the summer of 2009 after a private ambulance company suddenly pulled the plug on its contract with the city.
The department hustled to put the service into place, saving 14 jobs that had been on the chopping block. The firefighters also agreed to about $100,000 in wage concessions that year.
The division is staffed by 55 full-time equivalent EMTs, 31 of whom are paid by grants and 24 by the ambulance revenues.
Hatch challenged Narkewicz’ assertion that the ambulance service is “fully developed,” who said there was a 2010 agreement between the city and the union outlining plans for “Phase 3″ development.
Committee Hears from the Mayor, Union President, and Department Brass
A crowd of about 35 on- and off-duty firefighters and EMTs sat silently as the Public Safety Committee heard testimony from the mayor, a deputy fire chief, and their union president. With a couple ambulances parked just outside City Hall, a handful of the blue-uniformed men and women left from Council Chambers mid-meeting when a crackling call for an ambulance came in over their radios.
Deputy Fire Chief Duane Nichols read a statement from Fire Chief Brian Duggan, whom he said was out of town at a Homeland Security training event.
The ambulance costs are volume-driven, wrote Duggan, and having a dedicated account “provides the clear ability to plan for the shifting needs of the department.”
Duggan noted that communities across the commonwealth are split in the way they fund their ambulance services. The issue is not the structure of the account, but that “failing to appropriate sufficient resources will deteriorate the capabilities of the exceptional system we have built.”
Nichols said that while he personally didn’t see rescinding the account as a “plus for the department,” both he and the chief acknowledged the right of the mayor and City Council to make that decision.
Hatch told the committee Narkewicz’ proposal “came out of nowhere,” and that there’s been inadequate analysis of its impact.
“There’s 24 firefighter-EMTs paid out of that account, and there’s a lot of uncertainty over what will happen to those positions,” he said. Hatch noted that cutting-edge equipment and technologies have been deployed in Northampton “long before other communities” because of the account.
The mayor is asking all departments to present level-funded budgets for the upcoming fiscal year budget, said Hatch, which concerns him when he thinks about funding a volume-driven enterprise like the ambulance service.
“While I believe it’s the intent of the mayor (to) maintain the quality of the program, it’s inherent with any city budget in difficult times to be looking for cuts to be made,” said Hatch.
Hatch said he agreed with many of Duggan’s concerns, but said he was dismayed that Fire Department brass hadn’t discussed the matter with ambulance workers. The union would be willing to discuss the ambulance fund with the mayor as an “impact bargaining” item outside their general contract negotiations, Hatch said.
Hatch told Northampton Media that how the EMS division is funded is “secondary” to meeting collective bargaining agreements and ensuring the department receives adequate funding.
The firefighter and EMTs are working under a three-year contract that expired in 2010. Under an “evergreen” clause, the terms of that agreement, including the payment of raises and stipends, must be honored until a successor contract is negotiated between the union and the city.
Narkewicz and the union have yet to reach an agreement on the scheduling of talks, both sides said last week.
But the mayor said he has every intention of honoring agreements made in collective bargaining, regardless of where the money comes from. “Removing the fund does not remove the obligation,” he said.
Internal Strife at Fire Department; Grievance Filed Over EMS Fund Use
The quality of service delivered by the city’s ambulance service isn’t at issue. Last month Narkewicz praised the EMS division as being “among the best in Western Mass., if not the state.”
But it’s become apparent there is an internal conflict within the department over how the ambulance receipts gets spent and how those decisions are made. There were several oblique references Monday night to problems with the oversight of the account. Northampton Media followed up with Duggan and Hatch via email.
Duggan has failed to meet with an EMS Oversight Committee as required by Article Five of the union’s contract, Hatch responded. He said that, on April 2, the union filed a grievance with Duggan concerning the use of the ambulance fund.
The contract outlines the oversight committee’s membership as the chief, the EMS Supervisor, the union president, and two additional members, with other union members added “should further development be needed.” Its responsibilities are to meet on a quarterly basis to oversee EMS finances, budgeting, capital planning, quality control and operations, and to perform a semi-annual audit of the program.
Duggan wrote that he and Deputy Chief Norris support the value of the EMS Oversight Committee, but that the Local 108 indicated a year ago it wouldn’t convene the committee in the absence of a contract. In January, Duggan said, the union put forth a list of appointees to the committee that “does not match either the process or configuration outlined by Article Five of the Contract.”
At Monday’s meeting Deputy Chief Nichols admitted that communication between Fire Department brass and the union had “broken down.”
“Internal discussion, buy-in, and input from the group” is lacking, said Nichols. “There’s not communication, but there should be.”
Last September Hatch wrote an opinion piece in the Daily Hampshire Gazette criticizing spending from ambulance account; City Finance Director Susan Wright promptly responded with a detailed rebuttal. Wright listed all capital expenditures from the ambulance fund since 2007 and wrote that she saw no reason to assume the purchases undermine the stability of the EMS program.
The Local 108 currently has three issues pending with the American Arbitration Association (AAA), Hatch wrote in his response to Northampton Media. Two have to do with ambulance revenues spent on Fire Department expenses instead of staying within the EMS division, and the other with stalled EMS staffing levels outlined under the 2010 “Phase 3 development” agreement. In addition, he said there are a “number of other cases” that could potentially be resolved here in the city.”
In February of this year, Local 108 filed suit in Hampshire Superior Court over non-payment of raises to 33 of their recently hired members. Former mayor Mary Clare Higgins froze the contracted step raises for Fiscal Year 2011 (which began in July 2010), saying there was no money. The suit names the city, Narkewicz, and Duggan.
And in March of 2011, Local 108 filed an unfair labor complaint after workers were told by Duggan to help salvage a 77-year-old man’s belongings at 13 Laurel Park after his roof caved in from the weight of snow. The request had come from Building Commissioner Louis Hasbrouck and former mayor Higgins.
“We’re not the mayor’s personal moving company,” Hatch said at the time. The matter was settled last September, one day before a state Department of Labor Relations hearing was scheduled.
One thing that the union, Duggan, and Narkewicz seem to agree on is the need to adequately fund the city’s EMS service, regardless of where the money comes from.
“It’s a public safety service. It’s vital,” said Narkewicz. “I believe we will be able to put together a sound budget for FY13 which makes sure we maintain the ambulance service we’ve developed to date.”
Expect Narkewicz’ measure to appear on the April 19 City Council agenda.
© 2012 Northampton Media
Mary Serreze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org