Pa. city council gears up for debate over publicly-operated EMS
The proposed ordinance would designate Meadville Central Fire Department as the city's primary provider in place of the privately owned Meadville Area Ambulance Service
By Mike Crowley
The Meadville Tribune, Pa.
MEADVILLE, Pa. — Tonight's hottest ticket in town requires no ticket at all.
Meadville City Council meets at 6 p.m. The meeting, which is open to the public, is expected to include votes on the next step in preparations for a city-operated ambulance service and an ordinance intended to protect tenants from landlord retaliation.
The anti-retaliation proposal has drawn comments from both supporters and opponents at council's last two meetings, including one letter that threatened a lawsuit from landlords. That led to the proposal being tabled at council's most recent meeting to allow time for the city's attorney to meet with an attorney for Meadville Landlords United LLC, the group threatening the suit.
Council is also expected to discuss and vote on preliminary approval of an ordinance that would designate Meadville Central Fire Department as the city's primary provider of emergency medical and ambulance services. The privately owned Meadville Area Ambulance Service is currently designated as the primary provider.
City Manager Maryann Menanno described the step as an essential one.
"To make any kind of financial sense, the city would need to designate the Meadville fire department EMS section as primary ambulance and EMS provider for the city itself," she said. "That way you're able to bill Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance and receive the full reimbursement."
If approved tonight, the emergency medical services ordinance would likely appear on council's March 15 agenda for final approval and take effect 21 days later.
The prospect of city-operated ambulances — two used vehicles have already been purchased and sent off to have the city's name emblazoned on them — is what led Hal Tubbs to take to group text messages and social media, where he called on friends and "every citizen of Meadville concerned about the city" to attend tonight's meeting.
Tubbs, a city resident for 47 years and former chief of the Meadville Police Department, was uncertain how many people would attend but was sure of his opposition to the plan.
"I don't think that the city, which just had a tax increase this year, needs to take on a service that is covered by a private ambulance service and that is just going to cost money and keep costing money as things go up," Tubbs said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I'm a little nervous that if this goes through and they continue, it's going to be an awful expensive proposition."
Unlike a for-profit business, Tubbs added, if a publicly operated EMS service loses money, taxpayers would end up footing the bill.
The city-operated EMS service, which includes a newly created coordinator position and three paramedic positions in addition to the ambulances and other equipment and supplies required, is not designed to make a profit, according to Menanno, but it's not intended to lose money, either. The goal, she said, is for the service to be "revenue neutral" with insurance reimbursements generating the funding to cover the associated expenses.
When the financial outlook was considered at council's Feb. 1 meeting, interim Finance Director Tim Groves said his view on the viability of a city-operated service had changed over the past decade.
"I didn't think we had the ability to do it at that time," Groves said. Today, in contrast, he expressed confidence in the fire department's abilities and a high level of certainty regarding expenditure projections associated with the change.
"I probably am in favor that we control our own destiny," he told council. "Based on the figures we have — there's no assurances, but I feel very comfortable where we're headed."
Among other agenda items for tonight's meeting, council is also expected to vote on a new labor agreement with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents the city's service personnel. When council approved a new contract with the union representing city police officers last year, the agreement included a return to traditional pensions for police officers. The move was intended to make the department more attractive to new hires.
Menanno said the AFSCME contract, in contrast, sticks with a defined contribution retirement plan rather than the defined benefits of traditional pensions.
The agenda also includes a possible alternative to the anti-retaliation ordinance that has drawn the threat of a lawsuit. Although council members twice voted 4-1 in favor of the ordinance at their Feb. 1 meeting, a third vote in favor is required for final approval. Such a vote is on the agenda for tonight's meeting, but just before it on the agenda is discussion and possible vote on an anti-retaliation resolution.
Menanno said the inclusion of a resolution and an ordinance addressing the same issue of retaliation against tenants was meant to give council members an additional option. An ordinance has the force of law and requires three votes over the course of two meetings to take effect while a resolution sets policy and requires just one vote.
A resolution, she said, "has less teeth than an ordinance."
In a parallel situation last year, council considered a nondiscrimination ordinance that, if approved, would have established a municipal board to investigate claims of discrimination. In the end, a resolution that committed the city to no specific actions was approved.
"A resolution would just reaffirm the values of council," Menanno said.
Council's regular meeting will be preceded by a public hearing at 5:45 p.m. on the annual renewal of the cable franchise agreement with Armstrong Utilities Inc.
Those who wish to address council should arrive a few minutes early and sign up on the public comment sheet.
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