howardnlby Howard Stephenson

Salt Lake County’s proposal to get into the ambulance business by all measures would be a very poor business proposition. Mayor Nancy Workman has done a lot of good things during her two-years in office, but this is not one of them. When boiled down to its essence, the proposal is nothing more than an attempt to play to the government crowd for political gain through good old-fashioned power politics. The switch from private-sector ambulance service to government-run ambulance service has been pushed hardest by Mayor Workman, the International Firefighters Union, and Councilman Mike Jensen.
Usually republicans are the ones to push for privatization of government services, but republicans Workman and Jensen are pushing for socialization on this one. Jensen’s full-time employment is as a county firefighter. Perhaps that’s why he took a swipe at the Utah Taxpayers Association for opposing the switch. At a public hearing Jensen claimed that the Taxpayers Association trivialized the work of firefighters and expressed outrage that the organization could be so insensitive toward those who risk life and limb to protect the public, especially following the events of September 11.
Let me make it clear that opposition to government-run ambulance service in no way disparages the brave men and women who protect the public. However, there has been some disparaging of the private sector employees who provide Gold Cross ambulance services.
Proponents of county-run ambulance service have smeared the current ambulance provider, Gold Cross. It seems that rather than coming up with a vision for the voters to embrace, some have chosen to drag their opponent Gold Cross through the mud. Proponents have exercised significant political muscle, county staff time, paid lobbyists and taxpayer’s money with the ultimate desire of punishing a successful private business.
I’ve studied the issue, both as an elected official and as President of the Utah Taxpayers Association. An honest look at Salt Lake County’s current ambulance debate reveals a different story than you’ll hear from the county. As I see it, we have a private business, Gold Cross Ambulance, which is doing an excellent job at no additional cost to taxpayers, and elected officials and Fire Chief who are completely engrossed with the idea of socializing the County’s ambulance system. Importantly, the EMS system and county taxpayers stand to lose if the plan passes.
Here are some things the County Council should consider before they sign off on this proposal.
It isn’t about service.
Mayor Workman now says that the County needs an ambulance license to provide better service to Salt Lake County residents. A member of the firefighters union told some of my colleagues at the legislature that “people are dying” because the County doesn’t have an ambulance license. And, the fire department continues to make sweeping statements about Gold Cross’s twenty-minute response times.
Let’s set the record straight. This has never been about service for the County. People aren’t dying because of Gold Cross, and Gold Cross has an excellent record of response and service.
When the Mayor first announced her plan to apply for an ambulance license she said it was a financial decision. The firefighters union wanted forty-four more firefighters, and the County saw revenue from an ambulance license as a way to offset that cost. At the time the County produced a rough budget that showed them generating positive cash flow from the ambulance service. Salt Lake County Fire Chief Don Berry even said at the time, “this is not an issue of service.”
It wasn’t until September, when the Utah Taxpayer’s Association discovered that rather than generating revenue, the County’s plan could potentially cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, that the County decided to shift their focus to service issues.
It’s important to note that Gold Cross provides exceptional service. There is no ground-swell of public support for the County to socialize ambulance service. This initiative supports the labor unions and perhaps some political ambitions.
In the last three years, during which time Gold Cross performed more than 120,000 transports in Utah, only two formal service complaints were filed with the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services.
The National Fire Protection Association Regulation 1710- specifies that first responders, in Utah the local fire department, should respond and arrive at a scene in less than six minutes 90% of the time, and second responders should dispatch and arrive within ten minutes or less 90% of the time. In their capacity as a second responder, Gold Cross meets this standard. The fire department has failed to document whether or not the fire department meets their own response time goals.
This initiative is bad for private business and bad for county taxpayers.
Mayor Workman has said that this plan “does not threaten the viability of Gold Cross,” and that it “does not increase taxes.” With all due respect to the Mayor, how does she know? She has no personal knowledge of Gold Cross’ business, and the fire department has never produced an ambulance service plan or an ambulance budget that holds water.
The truth is that County taxpayers have a lot to lose by punishing the private ambulance company. Gold Cross pays more than $1.4 million annually in fees and taxes to Salt Lake County. Most of that will be lost in the County’s plan. Dozens of Gold Cross employees who pay sales and property taxes in the County will likely lose their jobs if this measure passes, which only adds insult to injury in this economy. Moreover, the County still hasn’t substantially demonstrated they can make money in the ambulance business.
Proponents seem confident the county can generate a profit in the ambulance business, but the fire department has yet to deliver a comprehensive budget that shows anything but a net loss. Salt Lake County lost money when they ran the ambulance service in the 1970’s, and government agencies in general have no incentive to work toward break-even or profitability. Last year, government-run EMS agencies in Utah lost more than $18 million.
It’s safe to assume the County will lose money running the ambulance business, which coupled with the more than $1.4 million Gold Cross contributes to the public coffers is a huge financial loss for County residents.
Emergency Ambulance Service will worsen under the Salt Lake County Plan.
Mayor Workman said, “no one has suggested that Emergency Ambulance Service would worsen under the Salt Lake County plan.” Let me be the first to publically make that claim. Emergency Ambulance Service will decline under the Salt Lake County plan. This claim has nothing to do with the dedicated and skilled county firefighters who would also be operating the ambulances – it has to do with the numbers.
The County proposes to provide ambulance service using existing fire fighters and seven ambulances. Gold Cross currently uses 25 ambulances and three times as many EMTs in the same service area. Gold Cross does this cost-effectively because they also provide patient transportation services, giving Gold Cross the ability to pull-off transportation runs in order to back up the higher-priority emergency services. If the Council passes the Mayor’s proposal, the fire department will use one-fourth as many EMTs and ambulances to provide emergency services to County residents as Gold Cross does. That amounts to a significant reduction in service for County residents – without any cost savings.
One other thing that the Mayor and Councilman Jensen have failed to acknowledge – the fire department’s primary responsibility is putting out fires. In the last six months we’ve had at least three major fires in the County. Multiple stations respond to these fires, as well as multiple ambulances. In the current system, where Gold Cross has primary responsibility for patient care and the fire department has primary responsibility for the fire, the disasters are dealt with and patients are treated with equal importance. Under the County’s plan either the patient or the fire would be subjugated to a secondary priority. Why would we modify the system at the expense of personal property or patient care?
The County Council has promised to carefully analyze the fire department’s proposal. County taxpayers should do the same.