The 2013 Whatcom County budget includes money for the advanced ambulance service Whatcom Medic One, after council members debated for more than an hour about whether to cut funding to the already cash-strapped program.
Frustrated by escalating costs, council member Sam Crawford asked the council on Tuesday, Nov. 20, to eliminate the county's share of funding to Medic One's 2013 budget.
He also asked for legal advice on whether the county could break a contract with Bellingham that calls for both governments to fund Medic One through 2013. Further, Crawford requested that Executive Jack Louws ask Bellingham officials to find $400,000 in savings at Medic One by Jan. 1.
This would be payback of sorts for what Crawford estimated was $500,000 or $600,000 in additional cost from what he considers excess staffing and from raises given to firefighters in the most recent union agreement. The 2013 budget had to account for two years of raises, including 2012.
Next year's Medic One budget has an overall shortfall of $1.1 million, which includes lagging fees for service and fewer Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements.
Louws told council in an afternoon committee meeting that he had asked the city to cut $400,000 from the Medic One budget but was told that couldn't be done.
Crawford noted that the system has grown more efficient under the existing contract because less-critical calls are going to basic emergency medical technicians, not Medic One's paramedics, who handle the most life-threatening emergencies. With fewer calls, Medic One's costs should be decreasing, Crawford said.
"We have a big glaring math error here that we haven't reconciled," he said. "Where's the proposal from the city that reflects that efficiency?"
Crawford's argument carried weight with most on the council, but a majority wouldn't vote with him to pursue severing ties with Bellingham and Medic One.
"I want to support it, but the thing about not paying up on a contract we committed to ... it bothers me to do it that way," council member Barbara Brenner said.
The city made a good-faith effort to reduce costs, interim Fire Chief Roger Christensen said. The fire department cut $133,289 from the Medic One budget, mostly by delaying an ambulance rebuild.
"We couldn't cut more. We looked back at it - at least not without potential impact on patient care," Christensen said in an interview Wednesday.
Crawford's proposal died in council, but Bellingham still will answer his question about what service would look like if expenses were reduced by $400,000.
"It would mean eliminating some positions, eliminating paramedics who are providing the service," Christensen said.
As for the firefighters' raises in the new union contract - 3 percent in 2012, an effective 2.5 percent in 2013 - the city had little control over that result, the chief said. The union can force an arbitration hearing, which would compel the city to pay whatever the arbiter decided.
"They would have been given all of this and maybe even more of a raise," Christensen said. "It's really out of the city or the county's control."
The county's 2013-14 budget, approved 6-1 Tuesday, includes $1.4 million for Medic One, no property tax increase and a new annual $19 fee on the property tax bill to all residents with septic systems, to go toward the Department of Health's water quality programs.
Brenner voted against the budget because it does not include her ideas for consolidating departments.
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