LACONIA — The city missed out on an excellent opportunity when a Massachusetts company withdrew its proposal to run the ambulance service now handled by the fire department, City Council members said Tuesday.
They also lamented that many interested parties never got the chance to see or publicly discuss the Brewster Ambulance Company proposal, which was kept private for more than six weeks while a committee studied it and offerings from two other firms.
Councilor Bruce Cheney said the Brewster offer had merit.
“I am extremely upset that the citizens of Laconia never got a chance to see what was offered,” he said. “And I don't know what the solution to that is, but there was an awful lot in that offer that the citizens should have been made aware of.
“They should of had an opportunity to review it before they assumed we were rushing to punish the fire department, or whatever other excuse they seemed to come up with. I think the proposal was well worth the public seeing, and then discussing whether or not we should head in that direction. It was an outstanding proposal.”
He said some of those who registered opposition supported the city’s tax cap, yet, in this case, objected to a city effort that could have saved money.
“Several of the people who called me, I asked them, ‘How did you vote on the tax cap,’ and I started to get a ‘hubida, hubida, hubida, hubida’ because they voted for the tax cap, but the thought that the City Council might be looking to keep costs down — the two thoughts hadn't gone together.”
Councilor Bob Hamel said there’s no reason why firefighters and private ambulance paramedics couldn’t have worked side by side.
“I think it could of been actually an extremely good working relationship between them and the fire department if a chance would have been given,” Hamel said. “They brought to the table an extensive amount of services that would have been offered to the city.”
Brewster would have taken over the ambulance service at no cost to the city, freeing up firefighters from a growing number of medical calls, letting them get to things they haven’t had time for and possibly saving the city money.
While the proposals were being reviewed for a month and a-half, opposition began to build.
Dozens of people, many with ties to the firefighting community, sent emails and made phone calls to city officials questioning why the city was considering having a private company run a service now handled by firefighters. A Facebook page was set up encouraging people to register opposition and providing emails and phone numbers of city officials.
Last week, City Manager Scott Myers put the Brewster proposal online and declared it “responsive to the needs of the city and comprehensive in terms of detail and qualifications.”
He sent an email to the company informing them of a June 18 public hearing for consideration of the two proposals – Brewster's, and the one from the fire department to retain the service.
In response, Mark Brewster, president and chief executive officer of the company, said he was under what turned out to be a false impression that the city had already decided to privatize the service. He said Thursday that he would withdraw his proposal rather than compete with firefighters.
Myers opined at that time that it was not a competition and so there was no reason for the company to withdraw, but at the Monday night City Council meeting, he read a letter from Brewster announcing the withdrawal.
“Brewster ambulance service strives to build the best emergency service systems and with that being said, our relationships with fire departments are not only important to us as a company but they are also crucial for the success of the system,” Myers read from the letter.
Many off-duty firefighters work for private ambulance services. This gives firefighters, most of whom are unionized, good leverage to prevent a private service from coming in, Mayor Ed Engler said.
“Honestly, I was surprised that it got as far as it did,” he said. “Brewster was looking to expand into New Hampshire and they made us a hell of an offer.”
He said he doesn't fault city officials for the way they handled the issue.
“Scott (Myers) directed it,” Engler said. “It was his baby and I think that given the underlying dynamics of the situation, he did the best that he could.”
After the Monday night meeting, Myers refused to immediately release Brewster’s letter publicly, questioning whether it was subject to open record laws, even though he appeared to read the whole thing into the record. He also declined to comment on Brewster’s withdrawal or the city’s process for handling the proposals.
In an interview Tuesday, Mark Brewster said he was not contacted by Laconia firefighters but had discussions with the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts about his proposal.
The city’s request for proposals to run the ambulance service came after Lakes Region General Hospital decided to end its financial support for the system.
Fire Chief Ken Erickson said that, even with the loss of the hospital’s support, the city’s costs would not go up as long as it can bill users or their insurance companies $1 million a year for ambulance services. He expressed confidence the city could reach that threshold, even though the hospital was only able to recover $825,000 through user billings.
Erickson said that even if a private ambulance service were brought in, he’d still need to retain all 40 of his firefighters to deal with a high threat in the city for structure fires. The department incurs about $300,000 a year in overtime costs.
Erickson said that his firefighters do an outstanding job handling the ambulance service and he was pleased they will be able to continue to do so.
“Why fix something that’s not broke?” he asked.
“We wished the issue could have been handled quicker. I had guys wondering whether they should get new jobs. Several had interviewed in other towns.”
He said it’s possible firefighters in Massachusetts could have counseled Brewster not to try to take over an ambulance service being handled by fellow firefighters in Laconia.
“Massachusetts and New Hampshire are two different states, but the world of firefighting is very small,” Erickson said.