Fla. city plans to start city ambulance service

This is the third time in 15 years that the Venice Fire Department has sought to take over ambulance service within the city

Earle Kimel
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

VENICE, Fla. — Ambulance service within the city of Venice may be operated under the auspices of the Venice Fire Department, effective Oct. 1, 2020, following a 6-1 vote Tuesday by the Venice City Council to start providing ambulance services within city limits.

City Manager Ed Lavallee said there are actually two timelines in play. The first involves Sarasota County's authority to collect 0.66 mills within city limits through a municipal services taxing unit that funds ambulances countywide.

Earlier in the meeting, the council unanimously voted to continue that for the next fiscal year.

The second timeline involves termination of an interlocal agreement — something that the board voted to begin Tuesday. The next step would be formal written notice to the county that the city wants to end the agreement, effective Oct. 1, 2020.

The motion the council passed then directed city staff — most likely Lavallee and Venice Fire Chief Shawn Carvey — to negotiate a transition to the city-run ambulance service.

When Carvey and consultant Bob Holdsworth, president of the Holdsworth Group, presented the City Council with the proposal in a January workshop, the plan had been to phase in the takeover, with the city assuming one-third of EMS service in each of the next three years, offset by a correspondent reduction of the 0.66 mills assessment.

Lavallee noted that in talks with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, the county was reluctant to change its rate for Venice residents.

Sarasota County Fire, Emergency Services Chief Mike Regnier reiterated that position in a memo to Lewis — which was circulated among city and county elected officials Tuesday — "as it would require residents in the unincorporated county to fund the City's transition, given the millage rate would be partially reduced while the County still provides services."

Regnier reiterated that stance Tuesday, in an email relayed through a county spokeswoman.

In that same memo, Regnier said no county personnel would be laid off.

Lavallee said he hoped negotiations with the county on a transition plan would go smoothly and ideally could be stretched out over a two-year period.

"I know there's some bad feelings; it's just human nature," he added. "We're saying 'you've been doing something; we want to do it.'

"I do appreciate all the work they've done. We just think, because of the geography and our demographic, we can do the same thing for the same amount of money and get there quicker with paramedics ourselves."

Sarasota County EMS operation likely will generate about $4.17 million this year through its operation in the city — $2.57 million in a dedicated millage and roughly $1.55 million in transport fees.

For that same amount of money, the city of Venice could operate the same three ambulances that Sarasota County does, as well staff each of the three primary engines with one paramedic each.

That plan would double the amount of vehicles with people qualified to administer advanced life support services, such as starting an IV, tracheal intubation to help with breathing, and administering heart medication.

Because fire engines are dispatched on all advanced life support calls and frequently arrive first, paramedics would arrive sooner, too.

Figures culled from county dispatch laws by the city of Venice put the current average ambulance response time within city limits at 7:22, while the Venice Fire Department had an average response time of 4:15.

Regnier disputed that in his letter, and offered response times for zones within the city of Venice at 5:48 for ambulances and 5:29 for Venice fire response.

Carvey suggested the difference in response times came from the city's culling of data only within the city limits, while the county may have looked at more regional responses.

A county spokeswoman said she could not comment on the methodology for those response times.

"Those seconds mean a lot when you're sitting there having a heart attack," noted council member Bob Daniels, one of the most vocal supporters of the plan.

While there's nothing wrong with Sarasota County EMS, he said, "Doesn't this city, the city of Venice, who's the oldest city and (has) the greatest number of nursing homes, deserve a better level of service than what we currently have — which is good?

"If this program saves one life because we had better service to our older residents, is that not worth it?"

During discussion, Daniels, fellow council members Mitzie Fiedler and Helen Moore and Mayor John Holic appeared firmly behind the motion. Vice Mayor Rich Cautero and council members Chuck Newsom and Jeanette Gates appeared to be leaning against.

But in the end, only Gates voted against the motion.

Her rationale is that there should be no boundary lines on first responders, but she also noted that she did support the fire department in general.

"I have already said to the chief that I want him to prove me wrong," Gates said.

Carvey said that the department will have the next year and a half to bring on board the paramedics needed to provide the enhanced service that the City Council voted for.

The city must hire between 18 and 24 paramedics — though some may come from the ranks of existing EMTs who can undergo additional training.

This is the third time in 15 years that the Venice Fire Department has sought to take over ambulance service within the city. In 2003, it was proposed by then-Chief Mike Johnson and in 2013 by then-Chief James Warman.

In January, the council heard the consultant's report and directed Lavallee and Carvey to proceed with negotiations on Feb. 25.

Still, county commissioners appeared to be unaware of the progress until Regnier's Monday memo.

Prior to the vote, Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler said, "Hopefully we can work with the city of Venice going forward that if they do decide to go their own direction that we're going to provide assistance, because at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that these citizens in the city of Venice get proper care."

Ziegler added he's "disappointed in the relationship or lack thereof" (with Venice).

Council members, who don't want to see the city go "cold turkey" on the takeover, are hoping that relationship improves.

"We need cooperation on a transition," Cautero said. "I'm going to trust the city manager and fire chief to efficiently and effectively work this out."


©2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.


McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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