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Mich. voters to decide on tax to increase ambulance service

Traverse City voters will consider a property tax increase that would increase staffing and help purchase more ambulances

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By Jordan Travis
The Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Voters will decide whether to tax themselves more so Traverse City Fire Department can expand its ambulance service, even as some city leaders questioned the move.

Commissioners voted 5-2 Monday, with Mayor Richard Lewis and Commissioner Tim Werner voting no, to place a question on the Nov. 7 ballot asking for a partial override of the Headlee Amendment for 20 years. The state law has the city’s operating millage, originally approved for 15 mills, capped at 11.7688.

A “yes” vote would increase that by up to one mill for 20 years so TCFD can grow its ranks by 10, including one captain, and buy two more ambulances, city Fire Chief Jim Tuller said. That would allow the department to take over as the city’s primary transport agency.

City firefighter paramedics already respond to medical calls in city limits, while Mobile Medical Response, a Saginaw-based nonprofit, currently handles transport for medical emergencies. City personnel step in if an MMR crew isn’t available.

Along with faster response times and making the department better equipped to handle multiple calls at once, taking over as primary transport agency would mean the same department already responding to medical calls in the city will transport whoever needs to go to the hospital as well, Tuller said.

He likened the current arrangement to someone getting their first mortgage, only to have the loan officer walk out so someone new could start asking the borrower the same questions again.

“There’s a lot of redundancy, and with continuity of care we leave that behind,” he said. “We are the people that are treating and we are the people that are transporting.”

Hiring more firefighter paramedics to make the change to primary transport agency would help staffing issues the department is just getting its arms around, Tuller said. Upping the number of personnel per shift to six resulted in a spike in mandatory overtime in 2022 and so far this year. More hires would allow the department to send personnel for training, and accommodate up to two people off per shift without requiring more overtime.

Several nearby departments already handle their own emergency medical services, starting with Blair Township in 1997 up to Long Lake Township in 2021, Tuller said.

Making the change could cost up to $1,801,700 in the first year, and revenues could reach $425,000 to $800,000 per year, Tuller said. Revenues would come from billing city residents for whatever their insurance would pay but no more, while requiring nonresidents to pay the full cost of service — an arrangement that avoids “double-billing” city residents who already support the service with their taxes, Tuller said.

Mayor Richard Lewis questioned the upper number for revenue estimates, noting it didn’t come out of an ad hoc committee formed to examine TCFD becoming primary transport agency. In response, fire Capt. Steve Ball said it’s based on a year’s worth of transports within city limits — around 1,750 — and the amount Medicare pays per call — an average of $498.

The proposal faced skepticism from some who said it didn’t solve the fire department’s entire problem, and from others who wondered if it solved a problem at all.

Lewis said both fire stations need replacing, yet the millage couldn’t be used to pay for new buildings. An ad hoc committee that examined TCFD becoming the primary transport agency figured it would take another mill at most to pay for two new stations.

Lewis questioned why commissioners weren’t discussing a millage for fire stations, noting Monday was the last regular meeting city leaders could place a question on the ballot. Without a solution at hand, the new personnel might not have anywhere to stay.

Commissioner Linda Koebert agreed, although she ultimately supported asking voters to consider raising the operating millage to expand the city’s ambulance service. Firefighters doubling as emergency medical technicians or paramedics is the future of how EMS services should be delivered, she agreed. But she thought the city should be going bigger and asking for both fire stations and ambulance service millages.

“I don’t think it’s fair to go to taxpayers for just this piece, let us buy the ambulance and get these people without knowing where they’re going to be housed,” she said.

Commissioner Tim Werner said better patient outcomes should be the objective, and he heard nothing to suggest that the current arrangement with MMR is negatively affecting patient outcomes.

Former Munson Medical Center President Ralph Cerny put it more bluntly.

“Basically, if it ain’t broke, why are we fixing it?” he asked.

Cerny argued the fire department didn’t make its case to ask voters to tax themselves more to replace a service provided at no cost to the city. Nor was anyone arguing that MMR is a poor service in need of replacement. Instead, the fire department promised shorter response times, which do matter in emergency medicine but aren’t the sole measure of effectiveness.

Others in the audience backed putting the millage question on the ballot, including city resident Jody Mackie. She told about how city firefighter paramedics helped her nephew, Jacob, when he collapsed in June from a cardiac issue. Their quick response and their working in tandem with MMR and city police was “seriously miraculous” and resulted in a good outcome for her nephew.

“For me, once you experience what this crew can do, that’s the sell, to be very frank,” she said. “I want them to have everything they need because I want them to be there to save the next Jacob.”

For Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe, it came down to letting the voters decide.

“At the end of the day, millages are up to the voters to decide,” she said. “All we’re voting on today is to put it on the ballot or not.”

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