Despite drawing strong opposition from several local governments, Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop is defending his proposal to fund a new college scholarship program by privatizing Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
The proposal would privatize the county’s 10 advanced life support squads located in various fire stations in Lucas County, including one in Oregon, and use the savings to fund college scholarships for high school seniors and older misplaced workers who will attend Ohio colleges.
County voters approved a 0.25 percent sales tax increase in 1993 to pay for EMS ambulance service.
Konop, a Toledo mayoral candidate, said his plan would save $4 million a year by adopting changes in how county business is conducted. The savings could be used to pay off the debt of a bond issuance that could generate between $65-$70 million to fund the scholarship program.
But Oregon, Maumee and Springfield Township have passed resolutions in opposition to the plan.
“Our residents, and all the residents of Lucas County, have had this service since 1993,” Oregon Mayor Marge Brown said at a recent council meeting. “And it’s a shame that someone has a brainstorm to take it away.”
Konop said last week that the resolutions were “railroaded through with no debate or discussion, not even a smidgen of impartiality. [Oregon Mayor] Marge Brown and [Maumee Mayor] Tim Wagner, who have opposed a lot of my ideas, have some political grudges and are really standing in the way of a great amount of progress, which I think is really unfortunate.”
Brown, said Konop, has stated on the record that she intends to run against Konop for commissioner in 2010.
Brown last week submitted her petitions to the Lucas County Board of Elections to run for a third term as mayor this November.
“Other opposition, said Konop, is driven by “a lot of fear mongering by a select number of the old time politicians.”
“They’re very resistant to change and I think they’ve kind of stirred it up, trying to create this unfounded panic, almost, over the privatization aspect,” said Konop. “In fact, we would only go forward with privatization if the commissioners believe that service would not be affected.”
He said some private companies offered to provide more vehicles as part of their bid package. Not only is there the possibility of cutting response times, but also, the training would actually be better in the private sector in terms of certification in the classes. There’s a higher standard there,” said Konop.
He is not dismissing the effectiveness of the current system by supporting privatization, he added.
“I think the public side is doing a fine job. This is not a critique of what they’re doing. I just think we could get equal or better service. With this type of economy we’re in, I think my college scholarship program is the central need for this community – to invest in its workforce. This would be a job creating machine.”
Would paramedics currently in EMS lose jobs in Konop’s plan?
“There would be about 10-15 jobs downsized, perhaps,” he said. “But those people would be first in line for jobs from the private sector if we privatized it. There would be no net job loss. Then on top of that, you’d have a $70 million investment in our community that will create thousands of jobs for years to come. For me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Konop said the plan is supported by the University of Toledo, “who has been a partner in putting this together and excited about the prospect of getting this strength into their institutions and allowing them to put out more graduates out into the world.”
Some, like Brown, said it isn’t surprising that UT supports the plan since it would profit tremendously.
“Of course they want to educate the most people possible, but I think that’s in the best interest of our community. So I don’t see any conflict there,” he said.
Konop also dismisses his opponents’ assertions that EMS should remain a public entity because county voters passed a sales tax increase to specifically pay for the service.
“The fact is, the levy goes into the general fund, which can be used for any function of county government,” said Konop. “In the campaign to pass the 0.25 percent sales tax, the message was on public safety. But the county spends almost 70 percent of its budget on public safety, regardless of whether we privatize this function. So that money would still be going to public safety, regardless.”
Konop added that the proposal’s pay back method also benefits the community.
“For every $20 of scholarship people receive through this program, the recipient would have to pay one hour of volunteer service to a non-profit, like the United Way. They would have five years following their graduation to make that service back to the community. So not only does the community win by educating a substantial percentage of its workforce and improving their income potential, it also wins again by getting tens of thousands of volunteer hours at food pantries, or environmental groups, or battered women’s shelters, or helping senior citizens. The possibilities are limitless. This is a bold, big proposal, but I think at this time in our community’s history, we need some bold, big ideas to change the economic direction,” he said.
Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said she opposes Konop’s proposal.
“Public safety is the single biggest responsibility of the county and we cannot afford to put our citizens’ lives in jeopardy with this plan,” she said. “Our EMS system is both state-of-the-art and a model of regional cooperation. It’s not time to fixes what’s not broken.”
She does support a cooperative effort to provide affordable college opportunities for high school students, she added.
“Like other communities have done around the country, I am taking steps to identify whether the private sector could assist in making this idea a reality,” she said.
Brown confirmed she did say last year she was going to run against Konop in 2010 for county commissioner, but insisted she was not serious..
“I am not going to run for county commissioner,” she said.
Last year, explained Brown, she was at a county commissioner’s meeting, and was upset that Konop had gone over a personnel file of a Lucas County Improvement Corporation (LCIC) employee in a public meeting.
“It was in front of the entire audience, and he asked for the employee’s credentials,” said Brown. “I was so angry, that he had the audacity to publicly attack an employee of the LCIC. You don’t do that to employees. So as I was walking out, I said, `I guess I’ll take him on.’ But I am not going to run against Mr. Konop.”
She said she holds no political grudge against Konop.
“I will work to repeal that quarter percent sales tax if his proposal is approved because it was not the intent to educate people,” said Brown. “The intent was for the safety of the citizens of Lucas County.”