Members of Oregon’s volunteer part-time fire department showed up at city council Monday to oppose Mayor Marge Brown’s proposal to “soft bill” residents’ insurance companies for rescue services.
“We will not support soft billing,” said long-time Firefighter Ed Ellis. “The Oregon citizens have supported this fire department since the day I came into it over 40 years ago. They will continue to support it, and they don’t need to be double dipped. You say it goes against their insurance. Eventually, there’s going to be a charge that’s going to get around to me – whether it’s in my co-pay or my insurance rates going up.”
The city’s safety committee met before the meeting to discuss the issue. City Administrator Ken Filipiak said last week that soft billing may be needed to offset increased costs in the fire department.
Currently, the fire department has a $2 million annual budget that is funded partly by a .10 mill levy, which brings in about $150,000 annually, and partly by the general budget.
Bill Flanigan, former assistant chief of the fire department, told council he opposed soft billing.
The city, he said, should make Lucas County officials accountable for its .025 percent sales tax for EMS service, which generated $14 million last year.
“How much of that tax has been given back to EMS?” asked Flanigan.
He also expressed concerns that the city had not asked for his advice on the matter.
“Not once has anyone up there called to ask me one question. I think I have as much knowledge or more than anyone in the city on this EMS and fire service,” he said.
He suggested creating a citizens committee to review the proposal.
“There’s a lot of questions out there that have to be answered,” he said,
The city is also considering making changes in the delivery of emergency services, including having firefighters respond to calls from the fire stations as opposed to the current practice of responding from their homes, or wherever they are at when they are toned out. The proposed change could improve response times.
Michelle Sullivan, attorney for the Part-Time Firefighters Association, said her clients are concerned about their future roles if the system is changed to regular staffing at the stations.
“We’re talking about staffing some of the stations with these folks,” said Filipiak. “We’re talking about a combination of existing services and adopting some level of minimal manning so you can ensure that first vehicle out the door more quickly, then supplement it on an on-call basis with the same people. How do we get people to sign up for first shift? Obviously create some incentive for them to be there in a block of time so that they can schedule around that would be one way. If you’re talking about having three people staffed at the station, could we find three out of 86 people to work during those day shifts? I think there’s a good chance at that. Could we expand the numbers of part-time firefighters if we found we couldn’t, giving preference to people who could make themselves available during the day? That would certainly be an option. So you could actually expand your ranks.”
Sullivan asked if the city would go outside the department if it could not find anyone to staff the daytime shifts.
“If you found you couldn’t get the staff that you wanted to provide that minimal manning, that could be the case,” said Filipiak. “You don’t always have people to cover shifts. The worse case scenario is that you rely on a system we have right now, which is you do a general call-out. We have to get the service to the people faster. This is the way we think we can do it most efficiently while still preserving a good portion of the service that we have and doing it with the same people. It’s not set in stone, but the basic principle is when you leave from the stations, it’s faster to the patient than from driving somewhere remotely and coming in and leaving. How we get from point A to point B is going to take a lot of lively discussion, and it’s going to mean changes to the terms of the employment for these people. We would have to sit down in good faith and bargain over those issues.”
Chris Mullins, president of the Part-Time Firefighters Association, questioned Mayor Brown’s account of who came up with the proposal. Brown had met with Mullins, as well as with Mark Mullins, president of the full-time firefighters Local 4093, and the Association’s attorney.
“You told me that this was [Councilman Clint] Wasserman’s proposal. Mr. Wasserman, was this your proposal?” Mullins asked. Wasserman said it was not.
Mullins said the mayor told him that Wasserman was “waiting by the phone to see if you’re on board with this because it’s his proposal.”
“I had asked Mr. Wasserman, as chairman of the safety committee, to meet with me and let’s go over this together,” said Brown. “So I did say it’s Mr. Wasserman’s, but it’s the administration’s proposal to go to the future.”
“There’s a lot of deception here, and that’s what I’m worried about,” said Mullins. “That’s why everyone is here today.”
Mullins also expressed concerns that Fire Chief Bill Wilkins does not communicate with the part-time firefighters.
Wilkins, he said, had called Mark Mullins, who supports the proposal, to be at the meeting, but not him.
“He never called me,” Chris said of Wilkins. “I did not know this was going on until the last minute. Do you think that’s fair? Why would the chief invite one side, but not the other? That’s unfair. It affects everyone sitting here. This is the problem that we have. It needs to be fixed at the top before it trickles to the bottom.”
Councilman Bill Myers said he understood Mullins’ frustration.
“I get the impression as though we’re saying one thing, but once again, doing something else. Rather than this proposal having come tonight the way it was, it sounds to me like we missed a couple meetings in between, where all of these people should have been invited for their input that we now say we seek. And then put together the proposal we came up with. I can understand why they get frustrated when you put the cart before the horse,” said Myers.
Filipiak offered to meet with Chris Mullins to discuss the matter further.