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Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown is at odds with some Columbus City Council members over how to choose the city’s emergency ambulance service provider and when that decision should be made.
Brown wants the Board of Public Works and Safety, which includes Brown and two of her appointees, to choose a provider July 17.
But some City Council members are saying that the mayor is failing to follow proper procedures and that she is making the important decision too quickly and without enough opportunities for the public and City Council to provide input.
A recently rediscovered city law from 1982 requires the city to form an Emergency Ambulance Services Board before choosing an ambulance provider. According to the ordinance, the ambulance board is to facilitate cooperation between the county, city and hospital; to advise the mayor and the City Council; and, “with the advice and consent of the mayor, to plan, negotiate and administer emergency ambulance services agreements between the city and entities providing such services.”
Brown and City Attorney Kelly Benjamin said the ambulance board has an advisory role and does not make any decisions. Benjamin said that without the mayor’s consent, the ambulance board does not get to plan, negotiate or administer.
“The ultimate decision rests with the Board of Public Works and Safety,” Brown said.
Brown said she plans to convene the ambulance board late next week, after the Board of Works has received proposals from potential ambulance service providers.
“We’ll appreciate the input, but we’re on a time frame ... to make a decision, and we’re going to stick with that time frame,” Brown said.
Brown said state law and the city’s own ordinance require that the decision be made by the Board of Works.
“There’s no power grab,” Brown said. “It’s not a City Council decision, which is what some of them would like.”
She said she volunteered to put the ambulance service issue on the City Council agenda for the most recent meeting and to do the presentation herself to make sure that the council members stay informed. She said she also has invited all council members to the public meetings, including three Board of Works meetings.
The ordinance requires that the board have five voting members, including one appointee each from the City Council and the mayor, two from the Bartholomew County Commissioners and one member from the Bartholomew County Hospital (now Columbus Regional Hospital) board of trustees.
The City Council appointed council member Frank Jerome on Tuesday, and Brown told The Republic on Thursday that she is appointing Roger Johnson, former state fire marshal and current president of the Indiana Firefighters Association.
The city ordinance states that the ambulance board must meet quarterly, though Brown said she believes the board has not met since the late 1980s.
Nonetheless, she said that at least two of the appointees, Jerome and the hospital representative, already have been involved in the process and should be able to provide input quickly.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of work and due diligence that’s gone into this,” Brown said.
City Council member Frank Miller said he would like to see the decision be made with greater transparency.
Brown campaigned on greater transparency, but, Miller asked, how transparent is it if the decision is made by the mayor and two of her appointees?
“We just feel like this needs to be a more open process,” Miller said. “We just don’t feel like it’s proper.
“There are more checks and balances ... than elected officials remember or choose to remember.”
Miller said he would like to see the decision postponed to give more opportunities for public input. Many people will not be able to attend the Board of Works meetings, because they occur in the morning.
The decision does not have to be made by July 17, Miller said.
City Council member Jim Lienhoop said Wednesday that he still believes that the ambulance board needs to sign off on the Board of Works’ decision but said that may be a moot point if the mayor and the ambulance board agree on a provider.
Lienhoop said he agrees that getting public input is more difficult at morning meetings but said that the mayor is prepared to address that.
Lienhoop also said he spoke with Brown on Wednesday morning and does not see a problem with the July 17 deadline. If the Board of Works can reach a decision by July 17 after receiving the proposals on Tuesday, the ambulance board can, too, Lienhoop said.
Jerome said he believes the ambulance board is to develop the plan to provide ambulance service, and the Board of Works must approve it.
Jerome said the July 17 target “seems aggressive.”
He said he understand the mayor’s intentions and that he has criticized the current ambulance setup for years, but the issue’s complexity and importance require deep deliberation.
If the city chose to provide emergency ambulance service through the Columbus Fire Department, for example, the city would have to hire more firefighters, train them, purchase equipment and specialized ambulances, Jerome said.
“You don’t just go to a Costco and buy one,” he said.
Jerome said he doubts the Fire Department would be able to provide ambulance service by Jan. 1, when the current hospital contract ends.
Brown said she agreed but said the city could extend the hospital contract for a year until the department can provide the service.
Jerome said the significant cost of providing the service through the Fire Department also would take a big bite out of the $3.5 million windfall the city is receiving this year after a state accounting error underpaid income tax revenue to local taxing bodies.
And the City Council had considered other uses for those funds, including road repair.
“We have all kinds of needs,” Jerome said.
He also said he would like to see the city work closely with the county, which will have to switch gears if the city changes providers, because the hospital is providing emergency ambulance service to city and county.
The city’s residents also live in the county, Jerome said, so if both the city and the county switch providers, city residents may have to pay for two systems.
“We have to be judicious,” Jerome said. “July seems premature to me.”
If you go
What: Special Board of Works and Public Safety meeting.
Why: To open proposals from emergency ambulance services providers.
When: 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Where: Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St.
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