Ind. city eyes change to EMS funding ordinance after state audit

Fire Chief Paul Bradley is proposing changes to the city’s EMS ordinance spelling out how his department can use ambulance service fee revenue

By Lauren Cross
The Times

GARY, Ind. — Fire Chief Paul Bradley is proposing changes to the city’s EMS ordinance spelling out in greater detail how his department can use revenue generated from ambulance service fees.

The city’s EMS nonreverting fund was created in 1994 for the purpose of accounting for the receipt and disbursement of ambulance fee collections.

The fund generates more than $1 million annually and can be used by the Fire Department for the purchase and maintenance of apparatus, medical supplies, training, computer software, grant matching funds, professional services, paramedic and civilian support staff salaries, and more, under changes proposed this week by Bradley.

“This makes clear 100 percent goes to EMS (expenses). The past ordinance wasn’t clear,” Bradley explained to council this week.

As of Nov. 30, the department has responded to 13,051 EMS calls in 2018, operating on five ambulances per day with a staff of 163 firefighters and 13 paramedics. They cover the city's 52 square miles and beyond.

The proposed change comes on the heels of the State Board of Accounts’ release of a financial audit that flagged Gary for improperly withholding portions of EMS-related revenue from the city’s General Fund since 2012.

The EMS ordinance, which has been changed three times since 1994, was amended in 2012, requiring any funds be used exclusively for EMS expenses, but did not address the 50 percent posting formula, the audit stated.

City leaders have largely disagreed with the findings, saying the ordinance, originally passed in 1994, was amended as recently as 2012, effectively deleting the 50/50 funding split.

The SBOA also noted the city spent down from that same account since 2015 — to cover expenses unrelated to EMS — without going through the proper channels.

An analysis of the city's EMS fund earlier this year by Whittaker and Co. found about $8.2 million was improperly transferred from the EMS fund to cover cash flow shortfalls in payroll and other areas.

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said expanding the Fire Department’s use of the EMS fund to include some health insurance and salary costs will relieve pressure on the city’s General Fund.

At this week’s Finance Committee meeting, Gary council member at large Herb Smith suggested the City Council include a “relief valve” measure in the ordinance that allows the administration to pull from the fund in “extenuating circumstances.”

“Should we put a relief valve in there? As we head towards (the 2020 tax caps) and things get real tight,” Smith said.

That suggestion didn’t go over well with some council members who argued the contingency would allow the administration to bypass the council.

“I say we go ahead and use this as is. It takes pressure off the General Fund. We use it for a year, two years, and if we find it’s not working … we can always amend it at that point,” Rebecca Wyatt, D-1, said.

This fall, the Gary City Council approved hikes in the fees charged to people who use the city’s EMS services, aligning Gary with other Northwest Indiana communities and better sustaining the EMS fund.

Copyright 2018 The Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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