Dec. 14--Heated debate about Augusta EMS service raged for an hour Tuesday but found no resolution after two commissioners walked out, causing a committee quorum to be lost.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who called for the open discussion, questioned city administrator Janice Allen Jackson about the status of contract negotiations with Gold Cross EMS. The firm's contract runs out this year, as does its $1.1 million subsidy, and the 2017 budget approved by the commission reduces the subsidy by 65 percent.
Jackson said she discovered several issues in reviewing the contract, including a "pretty significant discrepancy" -- some 9,000 calls -- with the number of calls Gold Cross said it handled, citizen abuse of 911 and the additional expense Augusta incurs when fire department paramedics respond to EMS calls and otherwise assist Gold Cross.
"Based upon our records, we can't substantiate the numbers they brought forward," she said.
Guilfoyle asked why discussions hadn't started when Gold Cross attorneys sent letters to Jackson in July. Jackson said she'd forwarded the letters to the city law office.
Commissioner Sammie Sias emphasized that since Gold Cross bid for and won state designation as zone provider, the commission has no authority over EMS service.
"We may walk up and strike a deal" on a contract, he said, "but we do not have the legal authority or legal responsibility" to oversee the service. "That was taken from this governing body," Sias said.
Asked by Commissioner Marion Williams to confirm, General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said Gold Cross as zone provider has the obligation under state law to respond to emergency calls. Commissioner Sean Frantom said the government needed to be more "business-friendly" and that cutting the subsidy would drive rates up on taxpayers in other ways due to high poverty rates in Augusta.
"When they took over the zone, they knew what the indigent was in this county," Commissioner Ben Hasan noted.
Asked by Guilfoyle if she would complete contract negotiations, Jackson said her "intent is to negotiate within the parameters of the budget."
Gold Cross Chief Financial Officer Frank Lindley said "gross misunderstandings" had been presented during the discussion. He said that a single 911 call often resulted in multiple ambulances being called to a scene.
He added that the company is required to transport any patient who requests a trip to the hospital, and "the phone never quits ringing."
Augusta Fire Department has responded to 911 medical emergencies since former Chief Ronnie Few pushed to make the department more active, he said. But after the ambulance ride, insurance providers are able to "Monday morning quarterback" and decide whether a call was medically necessary, he said.
Gold Cross attorney Brian Coursey said since 2006 the firm has not been assessed a single charge for a late run and is proposing a reduced subsidy of $900,000.
"This company has acted in good faith," he said.
Lindley said without the subsidy, Gold Cross would likely add a response charge used in larger municipalities. Sias returned to the zone designation, indicating "you all could do it better than we could," and Lindley agreed.
"Now we hear that y'all got to raise prices," Sias said. "For me, that doesn't match."
Frantom asked "is it true" that Columbia County pays Gold Cross a $500,000 subsidy. Lindley said the number was "close."
At that point Dennis Williams, vice chair of the administrative services committee, noted the quorum was lost with the departures of commissioners Marion Williams and Bill Lockett. Marion Williams said after the meeting he had to leave to handle a traffic ticket in Salley, S.C. Lockett didn't return a call seeking comment.
Their absences also prevented discussion of 24 amendments to the city personnel manual, including a proposal to remove a checkbox for criminal convictions from city job applications.
In other action, the full commission voted to spend $550,000 in Laney-Walker redevelopment bond funds to purchase three Railroad Avenue lots from Kamloops/Shoshone for the Foundry Place development, $227,300 for right-of-way acquisition at 2744 Washington Road, part of the Berckmans Road realignment project and about $190,000 for an 1803 Marvin Griffin Road parcel.