BELLINGHAM - City Council voted 4-3 late Monday evening, Dec. 16 to approve a new deal with Whatcom County on a joint emergency medical services system.
Council members Seth Fleetwood, Cathy Lehman, Gene Knutson and Michael Lilliquist voted in favor. Stan Snapp, Jack Weiss and Terry Bornemann voted no.
The measure hung in the balance after council members discussed the matter in an afternoon committee session. At that time, only three council members expressed approval: Fleetwood, Knutson and Lehman. Bornemann and Snapp said they were opposed, while Lilliquist and Weiss said they would wait until the evening session to decide.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws warned City Council members that the existing city-county agreement for delivering countywide EMS services expires at the end of 2013.
"We are at the 11th hour right now, and I don't know what the consequences of you not approving it are," Louws said.
Louws argued that neither the city nor the county has any immediate way of covering the cost of keeping the existing system operating at its present level in the years ahead. The EMS system is operating at a loss, drawing down its cash reserves. The cost-cutting in the new proposal is expected to reduce the losses and keep the system operating with no new taxes until the end of 2016. Sometime before that point, city and county voters will have to be convinced to approve new tax revenue for the system, Louws said.
"Make no mistake," Louws said. "This is not a permanent solution to the problem."
Whatcom County Council members decided in 2010 that they were dissatisfied with the longstanding agreement between city and county that set up a countywide system relying on city paramedics and ambulances. County Council members said they wanted more control for their money, and efforts to craft a replacement deal while controlling costs have been ongoing since then.
The deal before the City Council on Monday has already been approved by the County Council and Whatcom County Fire District 7. It will give the Whatcom County Executive the administrative authority over the countywide program, while the city agrees to provide three ambulances and one supervisor "chase car" to cover emergencies inside and outside city limits.
Fire District 7, in Ferndale, would provide a fourth medic unit for countywide use.
Under the current system that ends Dec. 31, the Bellingham Fire Department operates four paramedic-staffed ambulances, while District 7 provides limited advanced-life-support service that is gradually being ramped up to full-time.
The county would pay the city about $4.6 million for EMS service in 2014, rising gradually to a little less than $5 million for 2016.
City Council member Snapp, a retired Bellingham Fire Department division chief, said he opposed the new deal with Whatcom County and District 7 because it would mean replacing one of Bellingham's experienced paramedic crews with an inexperienced one from District 7.
During busy periods, Snapp said that less-experienced District 7 crew would likely be responding to emergencies inside Bellingham.
"I don't want that unit responding to me," Snapp said.
Bellingham Fire Chief Roger Christensen agreed that experience is important to paramedics.
"It was five years before I quit panicking when that pager went off," Christensen said.
But Christensen also maintained that the proposed deal with the county was workable, and a reasonable stopgap to provide countywide emergency medical services for the next few years with the funds available.
"There simply isn't the money to have everything that would be ideal," Christensen said.
The new setup will include paramedic supervisors in "chase cars" who can provide experienced oversight at major incidents as the Ferndale crew gets up to speed. The supervisors also will be able to direct the most experienced paramedic units to the most demanding situations, Christensen said.
While the deal would mean trimming nine positions from the Bellingham department, Christensen said he expected to do that via retirements, without putting anyone out of a job.
Mayor Kelli Linville, who helped negotiate the deal, said she believes it would maintain existing levels of service for city residents.
City and county negotiators considered a system that would provide five paramedic units, with four from Bellingham and one from District 7, but that proved too costly, Louws said.
City Council member Fleetwood said Bellingham Firefighters Local 106 members had contacted him over the weekend urging that the Bellingham department keep all four of its paramedic units, but Fleetwood said the money to do that is not available, given that the County Council is determined to get more control over the system and get District 7 involved.
Fleetwood wrestled with Medic One issues as a County Council member before he joined the City Council four years ago. He noted that years ago, city and county officials predicted the system's financial shortfall that is now forcing economy measures.
"We knew this day was going to come and we knew it was going to require fundamental alteration," Fleetwood said. "This is what fundamental alteration looks like."