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City-Run Ambulance Service on 'Back Burner' Due to Coronavirus

Auburn, N.Y., has been facing financial challenges caused by the outbreak. The city was recently told that $986,885 in state funding it was set to receive will be late. It’s possible the city may not get that funding at all.

by Kelly Rocheleau, The Citizen, Auburn, N.Y. / July 13, 2020
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(TNS) — With the city of Auburn once again renewing its deal with its private ambulance provider, the idea floated in February to create a city-run service has been placed on the back burner.

The long-standing emergency medical services contract between the city and its current provider, TLC Emergency Medical Services, has been renewed several times since mid-2018, with the city council approving the latest extension, set to last a year, at a meeting last month. However, the city had explored alternative options a few months prior, with the city announcing in December 2019 that it would seek proposals from providers. In February, officials presented a proposal to have the city operate its own service.

City Manager Jeff Dygert said in an interview with The Citizen Tuesday that the concept is "back-burnered right at the moment." He said he feels now is not the right time to change emergency medical services, citing issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the current stress on the state's medical system and the city's current economic strain due to the outbreak. He said in February the start-up cost of the endeavor would be approximately $1 million, with an unknown amount of annual expenditures.

"There's an awful lot going on and we didn't want to add one more moving part to a bunch of moving pieces," Dygert said Tuesday.

He also added that the city rejected the two emergency medical service proposals it reviewed earlier this year — one from TLC and one from TLC and American Medical Response Inc. — which is why the existing deal with TLC was extended once again.

Auburn has been facing financial challenges brought on by the outbreak. The city was recently informed $986,885 in state funding it was poised to receive will be late. It is possible the city may not get that funding at all, since Gov. Andrew Cuomo has publicly said the state would likely have to cut assistance to local governments and school districts if the federal government does not come through with financial assistance related to the pandemic. Dygert previously said that the possible state aid loss would create a revenue shortage and that the budget hadn't changed yet, but officials would see if adjustments need to be made once further information arrives. The city has had other recent financial worries well. Last month a 5.8% spending reduction for the 2020-21 budget compared to last year's budget was approved, with cuts made to multiple departments, in light of lower sales tax revenue projections due to the business shutdown prompted by the respiratory illness pandemic. Property taxes will jump 1.76%.

Dygert also said he thought things had been going well with TLC during the pandemic. He noted there were changes in how emergency medical staff such as TLC and Auburn Fire Department personnel operated — such as limiting the amount of medical personnel who came in to direct contact with patients — but some of those operations have now gone back to normal, including that aforementioned change. He said he feels the city-run service is "something that should still be looked at, but again, right now is not the appropriate time to do that."

The new extension between the city and TLC, which began July 1 and ends June 30, 2021, is the latest in a string of renewals between the two parties. TLC said he has served Auburn since 2006,when the company took over for Rural/Metro ambulance service. Auburn and TLC entered into a five-year agreement in June 2013, but when a new deal couldn't be reached by June 2018, they opted for a three-month extension. The two parties never came to a deal, though, however, with additional extensions in September 2018, March 2019 and December 2019. That deal in December was set to last until June 30. Council approved the most recent extension at a June 18 meeting.

Lon Fricano, TLC's director of operations in Auburn, said Wednesday he was happy about the latest extension.

"We are very happy that the city has continued to place its faith in TLC and recognize that we are providing a good service to the citizens of Auburn, to the community at large, and we continue to do so at zero cost to the tax base," he said. "We have invested a lot of money into state-of-the-art biomedical equipment, and we look forward to exploring with the city where we're going from here."

In regard to the city-lead service concept, he said he encourages councilors to "exercise extreme and due diligence in any such endeavor." He added such undertakings have led to negative financial consequences for other municipalities who have launched their own emergency medical services. He said he believed it would eventually lead to tax increases and possibly a deficit in service, as he said it had for other areas who have pursued this path.

Fricano said the city has a right to reject a proposal, as they did with TLC's offer and AMR's.

"I just hope that they give careful consideration in the not-too-distant future to where we're going with this, because we don't really want to wait until a week or two before the expiration of our contract to know whether our people have jobs," he said. "So we would like a little more advanced planning and maybe get some meetings together, see what they want, where they want to go and do what we can to help them achieve their goals as well."

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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©2020 The Citizen, Auburn, N.Y.

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