by Pam Zubeck
When Emergency Services Agency members heard that the city of Colorado Springs was working a side deal with ambulance contractor American Medical Response, they were curious.
Now, they're mad.
The ESA called a special meeting today at 3 p.m., and the two regular reps from the city — Deputy Fire Chief Tommy Smith and City Councilor Merv Bennett — didn't show. In June when the ESA board approved a two-year extension to AMR's contract for exclusive 911 ambulance runs throughout the county, neither of them raised a question. The vote to approve was unanimous.
Now, the city is working with AMR directly, and neither party will tell the ESA anything about it, other than to assert that the side deal won't change rates or response times.
In fact, the city is trying to wrest $2 million to $2.4 million in "efficiencies" from AMR in exchange for time spent on-scene by firefighters who respond to medical calls and sometimes arrive first. This clearly means AMR, and perhaps the city, will be axing jobs as they work a deal to "share" shift supervisors, trainers, fleet maintenance workers and others to deliver emergency medical care. (We outlined the issue in a story last week.)
In his place, Bennett sent alternate member Councilor Bernie Herpin, who said Council would approve the extension when it's presented at a future unknown date, and that the Fire Department and AMR would outline their deal at the Dec. 5 ESA board meeting.
Herpin didn't say how he knew the Council would approve the extension. In Colorado, it's illegal for elected bodies to make decisions in private. The ESA extension has never appeared on a Council agenda, so it's curious how Herpin knew the outcome of a future vote.
Later, after the meeting, Herpin said Council is powerless to do anything having to do with the ESA contract: "As a Council, we have no say in it." That's because the strong mayor form of government, in place since mid-2011, gives all contracting authority to the mayor, he added.
However, it's the Council, not the mayor, who's party to the intergovernmental agreement that created the ESA more than a decade ago, and the IGA pre-dates the strong mayor charter change. So it's unclear whether the mayor could usurp the Council's power. That would be a question for the city attorney, but Chris Melcher was hired by and works for the mayor. Any bets on what his legal opinion would be?
Anyway, Deputy Chief Smith said nothing during meetings of the Pikes Peak Fire Chiefs Forum last spring when the extension was discussed. Suffice to say, the chiefs aren't very happy about the latest development, leaving some to wonder if all the fire departments in the region will now try to cut their own deal with AMR.
When asked to comment on not coming to the meeting, Smith told us via text message, "The board was aware that I wasn't going to be at this meeting."
But ESA board members seemed to be quite puzzled at his absence. Several commented on it and expressed "disappointment."
"I'm wondering why there's not someone from the Fire Department to explain what's going on," El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark said. "I think we need to bring this discussion into the light of day."
Fountain Mayor Jeri Howells said if there are going to be side deals, then an ESA member should at least be included in those discussions as they're happening.
Oh, but there is an ESA member involved in the EMR/city deal, Herpin quickly chimed in: Smith, he noted, is an ESA board member. Another member, naturally, then wondered if Smith is dealing with AMR as an ESA rep or as a city rep. And when Herpin said there is "not a big urgency" to the matter, ESA Vice Chair Carl Tatum, Hanover fire chief, pointed out, "We have 25 other players that need to start planning if we don't have a contract." The last ESA contract took 18 months to negotiate.
There have been hints that Colorado Springs wants to pull out of the ESA all together, which could strand the rural areas without emergency coverage, because ambulance companies may not find the low-volume call area attractive.
Another ESA board member said the deal being negotiated between AMR and the city benefits one party to the ESA agreement, and that's not right. The members should be "all in or not," meaning that whatever AMR pays to the city should also be paid to the other members based on their participation in the system.
But while there was a lot of griping during the 90-minute meeting, the ESA didn't do anything, other than ask the staff to put together guidelines for handling such ad hoc negotiations in the future so that, as Tatum said, "it doesn't happen again."