The City of Columbus hopes to soon free its taxpayers from paying for the cost of emergency medical services (EMS) for two rural protection districts outside of town.
On June 5th, extensive conversation was had on the subject during the Committee of the Whole session and subsequent City Council meeting.
There has been no documentation found as to why the City has provided EMS to districts outside of the city limits for decades, but a City contingency including Mayor Jim Bulkley, City Administrator Tara Vasicek and Columbus Fire Chief Ryan Gray initiated conversations in 2022 with Platte County and the rural protections districts about how to make it fair for all involved.
Columbus Rural and Duncan Rural protection districts most recently proposed a conditional two-year agreement with the City of Columbus. In this scenario, those entities would submit a request to raise their respective levies and help generate $300,000 a year for the next two budget years.
“I’m impressed with the rural districts,” Bulkley said, in a separate conversation from the meeting.
But the City has held firm that it would cost $600,000 annually in perpetuity to make that happen. That $600,000 would be used to cover the salaries and ancillary costs of hiring the necessary six firefighters/paramedics to staff an additional to continue providing EMS to the rural districts properly. The City would cover the cost of the equipment and apparatus associated with new hires. The chief clarified on June 5th he felt the positions could be filled over time and that the City would only be compensated as those hires happen as opposed to receiving a large sum upfront. City leaders said putting a one-to-two-year time frame on the agreement would stifle the success of recruiting viable candidates, who will require stability to relocate.
But why does the fire department need more staff? Gray once again explained how the fire department has seen a rise in calls over the last five years, with the two rural protection districts accounting for 14% of all CFD calls. He also spoke on how limited staffing and more calls to rural areas could present potential disaster with overlapping calls and inability to provide service to all.
Columbus firefighter and Columbus Professional Firefighters Local 1575 President Jojo Dunn addressed the Council during the Committee of the Whole meeting by first reiterating the fire chief’s points about increased call volume and CFD’s responsibility to protect the city population and its property, noting he only anticipates that growing and becoming more taxing on fire and EMS professionals.
He then said the local firefighters’ union, which represents firefighters and emergency medical personnel in Columbus Fire and Rescue, fully supports the City’s proposal.
“We believe the amount being asked of the districts is more than reasonable. That’s the bare minimum to cover the staffing. That’s not the training, the equipment, it’s not the supplies, it’s not maintenance. It’s just to cover staffing,” Dunn said. “I don’t believe this is a cash cow request.”
Dunn also had pointed remarks about Platte County and the rural protection districts.
“Just as the citizens of the City of Columbus must pay for their services, the surrounding communities must also pay for their own services. The intent of this system is that each community pays its fair share of the cost associated to provide these services,” Dunn said.
“The City of Columbus has footed the bill for the surrounding communities for decades. Platte County and the [rural protection districts] have taken advantage of big brother for too long.”
Mayor Bulkley addressed the Platte County Board of Supervisors during its May 23rd meeting, asking its members to consider raising the county levy to make up the $300,000 or to put it to vote for citizens in the rural districts. Under the latter scenario, the City of Columbus would like to assist with ballot language.
The Platte County Board of Supervisors has since publicly stated the County will not look to provide the $300,000 needed for its constituents, with District 3 Supervisor Kim Kwapnioski indicating to The Columbus Telegram a county-wide levy would be unfair to the citizens that don’t benefit from the City’s EMS.
But, City leaders said, it’s just as unfair for the rural protection districts and Platte County to expect City taxpayers to continue to cover the cost and have the City of Columbus attempt to justify it.
“It’s not the City’s responsibility to find a replacement for those services,” Bulkley said, in a separate conversation from the meetings “That’s a county responsibility.”
Some representing the rural protection districts, including David City-based Attorney Jim Egr, raised concerns about the $600,000 proposal while citing how rural EMS is handled in other communities.
The Council members talked at length about rural EMS during both meetings, but came back to the importance of doing what’s best for City of Columbus taxpayers having to be their priority.
“We have to look at our budgets. We have to look at what works best for our community as a whole and what works within our budget,” Council President Beth Augustine-Schulte said, during the Committee of the Whole portion of the night, while citing a need for the Council to uphold justice for its citizens who already pay for EMS.
“I’ve been elected to represent the people of this community. I have to be conscientious of how we are spending their tax dollars.”
The Committee of the Whole ultimately recommended the City’s $600,000 proposal. The City Council subsequently approved sticking with the $600,000 suggested proposal to continue services and to give Platte County until July 1st, 2023, to respond with how it will work with the rural protection districts to come up with the additional $300,000 to properly fund rural EMS services. The Council also is asking Platte County to let the City of Columbus know by July 1st if it will take the funding issue to a referendum by Oct. 1st, 2023.
It was noted on June 5th that once the City hears back from Platte County on its stance, it will work toward taking the rural EMS expense off its taxpayers or ultimately cease rural EMS by no later than Oct. 1st, 2023.