Firefighters say Sylvania Township budget falls shortWritten by Autumn Lee | | firstname.lastname@example.org
With the Sylvania Township’s recent Fire Dept. staffing cuts and elimination of its transport unit to balance the 2007 budget, problems remain and concerns about continuity of service have surfaced. How the cost of the transport unit was evaluated leaves room for argument.
Private companies have resumed their role in dispatching ambulances for non-limb and non-life threatening emergencies to fill the transport unit’s void.
As for life- or limb-threatening emergencies, the Lucas County Life Squad will continue to provide services as it had prior to the elimination of the transport service.
Yet despite the change in who provides the transport services, interviews with Sylvania Township officials and the Sylvania Firefighters IAFF Local 2243 president revealed other concerns and a discrepancy about whether the service was indeed “profitable.”
Chris Nye, president of Local 2243, said his greatest concern about the elimination of the transport unit deals with time delays that could occur with waiting for a private ambulance to be dispatched.
Nye said even though the transport unit (also known as Medic4) was dispatched without sirens and driven through normal traffic conditions, the Sylvania Township Fire Dept. would arrive within nine minutes.
“The first day we were out of service for 21 minutes before we could take another response,” Nye said
Nye said this was a specific incident, but is not sure how the service cut will affect other runs.
Manager of the Lucas County EMS Gary Orlow said the Sylvania Township Fire Dept. would still serve as “first responders.” If the Fire Dept. deems it necessary to call for an ambulance for transport, they will contact Lucas County. Lucas County will then contact the closest private ambulance company to dispatch an ambulance. If the closest one is not available, Lucas County will continue down the line with the second closest and so on.
Medic4 was not designated as merely a “transport unit,” but it was also used for emergency services and had firefighters aboard as well, Nye said.
The transport unit generated about $300,000 in revenue with the personnel cost of two firefighters required to operate the unit totaling about $250,000.
“The Fire Department is not in the business to make money,” Nye said.
Residents of the Sylvania area who used the service were previously “soft billed” and were not expected to pay any balance not covered by their insurance company as their taxes would cover the balance.
Outside residents would receive up to three bills, but would not go to collections either, said Nye.
Use of an ambulance for non-life or non-limb threatening emergencies will no longer be billed through an independent third party. Instead, the private ambulance companies will “hard bill” its customers and will send unpaid bills to collections.
Trustee Carol Contrada said she favored keeping the transport unit as she viewed it as a revenue source, although it was never intended to be a moneymaking source.
“There is no question [the service] provided a revenue source. Expenses were absolutely covered by recovery from insurance payments,” said Contrada.
Her concerns echo Nye’s — maintaining the continuity of care for those who have a medical emergency.
“With 15 or 16 staffed, Sylvania Township could afford to run the transport unit. When you lay people off, you can longer afford that service,” Contrada said.
Contrada said she feels that when the transport unit goes on a run, the cost of operating that unit should be evaluated by determining the actual amount of time spent on it.
Using the accounting method of applying the cost of pay and benefits of six employees (as it takes that many to cover three shifts) will make the figures appear skewed, she said.
Contrada noted that despite the transport unit service being cut, Sylvania Township is still paying for the lease of Medic4.
Sylvania Township Administrator Hugh Thomas indicated Fire Chief Chris Maurer is looking at options regarding the leased ambulance, such as buying out the lease to sell it and the determining its ability to sell.
Trustee Pam Hanley said the transport unit was not generating profits. Hanley indicated private ambulance companies could provide their services for almost half the cost than Sylvania Township can.
In her opinion, the Fire Dept. will be a priority concerning capital improvements in 2008 and beyond. She may come up with a plan for those improvements later on.
Trustee Dee Dee Liedel shared Hanley’s sentiments about the unit’s loss in profits and said they “could not sacrifice long-term stability for short-term gain.”
“By discontinuing the transport unit, we’re returning to the level of service provided [by private companies] prior to the service’s implementation in March 2005,” Liedel said.
Sylvania Township has notified the private companies about the discontinued service, she said.
Despite cuts to balance the 2007 Fire Dept. budget, problems remain.
According to Liedel, money has not been set aside for major equipment breaking or making major upgrades to the fire stations. In addition, the budget that was recently passed does not account for vacation and sick time that can be cashed out when firefighters retire.
With no funds set aside, the money would have to come out of the general operating fund, she said.
Liedel said she wants to move from a cash basis method of accounting toward an accrued method, which would allow money to be reserved in “escrow.”
The trustees asked to Sylvania Area Fire/EMS Advisory Board to review and report on the economics of the transport unit. A report, which was produced by members of the Finance Committee of the Board called, “Report on the Economics of the Transport Unit, October 2006,” discussed economic aspects of operating the transport unit. It also included a one-page supplement that identifies non-financial characteristics of the transport unit provided by the Sylvania Township Fire Dept.
On page one, the report discredits the balances in the Township Fund 28, designed to track revenues and expenditures for the transport unit, as an accurate measure of the results of the unit later on page six gives the reason:
“Amounts recorded as salary expense in Fund 28 do not reflect a systematic assignment of payroll expenditures.”
The report suggests internal controls regarding the transport unit “should be reviewed,” page one read.
The average cost per firefighter — $81,857 — includes salary, benefits, pension, vacation and sick days and Kelly day. That figure is multiplied by 127 percent as Sylvania Township requires 5 firefighters to be staffed for every 4 needed as 22 percent may not be available. Thus, equaling $104,285 per firefighter with sick days assumed at a used rate.
The Avoidable Cost Method contrasts the difference between the costs of staffing levels that are contractually mandated if the transport unit is operated to those contractually permitted if the unit is not operated. This method reveals a total loss of $447,879.