Ala. city council to vote on ambulance service ordinance
The new ordinance features financial penalties of up to $20,000 for failure to meet response time requirements and a $2 million insurance bond requirement
By Bayne Hughes
The Decatur Daily, Ala.
DECATUR, Ala. — Decatur City Council members will consider a controversial new ambulance service ordinance Monday after years of debate and conflict.
The council majority insists that it’s time to vote on the new ordinance that features financial penalties of up to $20,000 for failure to meet response time requirements and a $2 million insurance bond requirement for the ambulance service. The meeting in the council chambers at City Hall starts at 10 a.m.
Council President Paige Bibbee said last week at the council work session she would not support tabling the ordinance.
“We’ve been working on this for six years and we need to get this behind us,” Bibbee said. “We keep running into doors every time we get close and we need to move on.”
Councilman Charles Kirby has been a defender of First Response Ambulance Service, the city’s only ambulance service since 2014, and a fierce critic of the proposed ordinance. The proposed changes were prompted by the city’s inability to enforce the response-time requirements, which First Response frequently violates.
“What is the purpose of replacing an ordinance with problems with an ordinance they admit has problems?” Kirby said. “It doesn’t make sense other than there’s a significant purpose to that (proposed) ordinance.”
Kirby said he would not comment on what he thinks this purpose is until Monday’s meeting.
Bibbee said the ordinance is a “living document” that can be amended if there are problems.
Councilman Chuck Ard said he’s OK with moving forward with the new ordinance even though there might still be issues with it.
“We’ve been working on this for a number of years and it seems like there always needs to be more work on it,” Ard said. “By being a living document, we will know if something isn’t working out well and it can be changed.”
Ard said a city ordinance is different from a contract in that it gives the city more flexibility.
Both the current and the proposed ordinances require that the ambulance service arrive at the scene of 90% of in-city calls within eight minutes, and 90% of calls in the police jurisdiction within 12 minutes.
The proposed ordinance would exact a $10,000 fine in the first quarter an ambulance provider fails to meet the 90% mark. If the provider again falls short in the next quarter, a $20,000 fine is imposed. Penalty points would also be assessed — 10 in the first quarter and 20 in the next — and accumulating 26 points over two years can result in revocation of the certificate to operate.
“If it were a contract, we would have to go to court to make changes,” Ard said. “As an ordinance, we can be more flexible and handle things faster.”
David Childers, First Response director of operations, said he “would like to work with the city” on creating what he thinks is a workable ordinance. He then referred questions to attorney Hal Mooty.
Mooty said there are a lot of problems with the ordinance, but his biggest concern is there weren't any "meaningful tweaks and revisions" in the five months since this version of the ordinance was unveiled.
"They haven't changed one word," Mooty said. "I think it's prudent to produce the best product possible for the city and its residents. It's a mistake to treat an overhaul as something that can be changed later without making revisions first."
Councilwoman Kristi Hill, who could not be reached for further comment, asked Jason Tindal, of First Response, at a work session last week what problems the company has with the ordinance. First Response has been the city’s only ambulance service since Decatur EMS folded in 2014.
Tindal said the ambulance service has issues with the $2 million performance bond required, the financial penalties and point system, and the way non-emergency calls are dispatched.
Tindal said multiple bonding agencies said they wouldn’t issue a bond to the ambulance service because it doesn’t have a contract with the city and the city would be the main beneficiary of such a bond.
“They said there’s no way in heck they would issue a bond,” Tindal said.
Kirby said First Response can’t get a performance bond because the company doesn’t have a legal contract with the city, the bond is based on expected cash flow and the company doesn’t make $2 million annually to cover the bond.
Tindal said the amount of penalty points required for revocation of their certificate is so low “we could be out of business in a quarter (of a year) and two days.”
Failure to meet required response times in both the city and the police jurisdiction during a single quarter would result in 20 points. A headlight out on one truck and a brake light out on another would add the final six points to reach 26, giving the council authority to revoke First Response's certificate.
Bibbee said he’s throwing out extremes that she hopes doesn’t happen.
“Ultimately, it’s not the city’s fault,” Bibbee said.
Ard said First Response met the response-time requirements when Decatur EMS was operating so the question for the company is what changed so it can't meet the requirement since the competing service went out of business.
"If you needed an ambulance, wouldn't you want that ambulance to respond on time?" Ard said.
Assistant City Attorney Chip Alexander said the ambulance service can appeal any penalties.
Tindal said the First Response has a plan to meet the ordinance’s response-times requirement even though they’ve tried for months to get it relaxed. He did not give details on this plan.
Hill suggested Tindal email council members with any suggested changes as soon as possible.
©2019 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)