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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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County renews EMS services agreement with City of Austin
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
With their action yesterday, Travis County Commissioners unanimously approved a renewal of the interlocal cooperative agreement with the City of Austin for emergency services for one more year.
The renewal allows the county to provide EMS services to the area of the county outside the city through the use of a combination of city staff and equipment and county-provided vehicles, stations and other assets.
Though all of the suggested additions to the agreement have already been approved as part of the county’s 2013 budget process, county officials held off on several “enhancements,” as staff recommended.
Ernie Rodriguez, who is the director of EMS, told In Fact Daily that he was not opposed to putting the so-called enhancements off for a few months, saying, “I just didn’t want (the agreement) to die… It’s a little slower than I would like, but I can live with it.
“When you talk about enhancements, sometimes it gives you the perception that those things are optional. What we’ve asked for is the equipment and personnel that we need to provide basic services in the county. My concern is right now we only have enough equipment and personnel to cover 60 percent of the county. So there is a significant portion of the county that does not have good, or adequate, access to EMS. That’s a concern,” said Rodriguez.
Emergency Services County Executive Danny Hobby explained that the county was undertaking a financial analysis that he promised would be done by March 15, and this analysis would help inform about additions to the budget.
As a result, commissioners held off on approving a new $1.5 million 24/7 station at Austin Colony, and adding additional staffing at stations in Bee Caves and on Kelley Lane in Pflugerville that would have cost about $1 million. Both of these expenditures were previously approved in the 2013 budget process.
They also put off approving just over $600,000 in replacement ambulances and vehicles that were also approved as part of this budget cycle.
Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin/Travis County EMS employees association pushed for the commissioners to approve the items that had already gone through the budget process.
“It’s always disappointing to have to do this year after year and have a hundred jobs in the balance. That’s contributing a lot of anxiety, and it’s contributing to morale issues,” said Marquardt. “We want to do a really great job in the community, and we want y’all to give us the tools we need to accomplish that, based on what y’all have already granted for us.”
Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt pointed out that the 2013 budget is a more than 20 percent increase in the base budget.
“No matter how you slice it, it’s somewhere above a 20 percent increase over last year’s budget,” said Eckhardt. “That is a concerning increase, and I would like to see us put the reset button on and come up with some per-unit cost analysis. So that we can ensure, to Travis County taxpayers as well as city of Austin taxpayers that the resources are distributes optimally. So that we don’t see a 20 percent pop in a budget year.”
In a memo to the Commissioners Court, Hobby said that while they had hoped to develop a direct cost formula for the 2013 Fiscal Year contract with the city, they fell short of that goal and have set a new hard deadline for March 15. By March, explains Hobby, they also will have 2014 budget projections and service zones, breaking down the costs of service for each.
In the memo, Hobby also explains that the unknown impact of voter-approved civil service classification in the city’s EMS department, upcoming contract negotiations, and anticipated city expansions make it advisable to hold off on additional enhancements for the time being.
They did approve funding a pilot program for the areas that were set to see enhancements. Though they will return to court prior to implementation, these programs will allow the county to explore the possibility of using paramedics more flexibly, dispatching them in vehicles like trucks and motorcycles, which could allow them to arrive on the scene more quickly than the current system and allow them to work in advance of ambulances showing up.
Rodriguez was supportive of the pilot program, and of steps that are being taken to simplify the budget process, as well as work that is currently being done to examine the system currently used to coordinate emergency services in the county. However, he warned commissioners about losing focus about the purpose of the requests.
“Sometimes we get off track, and we start thinking about the wrong stuff. This is not about overlays, it’s not about pilots, it’s not about civil service, it’s not about units merging retirement systems, it’s not about budgeting styles and processes. It’s real people, and that’s what we need to stay focused on,” said Rodriguez. “We don’t have everything we need to do the job.”
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