The debate on whether to combine emergency medical services with the fire department comes down to services and money.
Commissioners of both the San Juan Island’s hospital district and the fire district discussed the merger at their first public meeting on the subject on April 4 at the fire department’s headquarters.
At this point, board members on both sides agreed to continue to research the consolidation to determine if it would improve services and that it should not be financially motivated.
Reasons to pursue a merger included reviewing if San Juan Island requires two departments that cover crisis health services.
“It’s looking at the future,” San Juan County Hospital District 1 Commissioner Rebecca Smith told the Journal. “When you have a limited amount of people and have resources that are responsible for the same thing, i.e. emergency service, you can look at combining them … and not have a duplication of services.”
She and EMS Chief Jerry Martin also noted that both organizations often use the same volunteers.
San Juan County Fire District 3 Commissioner Bob Jarman said it’s a good time to determine if the merger would improve emergency services because Martin previously expressed interest in stepping down. Martin has said he would remain until a decision on the merger is finalized.
“EMS is in the middle of a chief change,” said Jarman. “Maybe it’s time to look … if we can provide better service, if we can streamline the service. That’s why I’m looking at it personally.”
One way to improve services, said Jarman, is to decrease emergency response times, though both organizations’ chiefs said they currently meet industry standards.
However, Fire District Commissioner Frank Cardinale said that merging services wouldn’t necessarily lower response times. To do so, additional, most likely paid staff would have to man stations for quicker reactions to emergency calls. Today, both organizations rely on mostly volunteer crews.
At the April 4 meeting, Martin explained that he initially suggested the merger at a public hospital district meeting last October, when he said: “What [commissioners] should probably do is eliminate my position, put that funding into the capital reserves and move our organization over to fire.”
Two previous public hospital commissioners, who have since left, voiced concern that EMS finances were in trouble. Martin told the Journal that he gave this advice last fall because then-commissioner Monica Harrington requested that at least $100,000 be put in the organization’s capital reserves every year, which had not been happening. Former Commissioner Bill Williams had made the same suggestion at that meeting.
Since the two commissioners’ departure, EMS financial advisor Chris Compton said the organization currently has “a healthy balance” and is not in “a dire situation.”
Martin added that the department’s budget is similar to other EMS and fire departments of the same size, even without the annual $100,000 added to reserves. If his department put that much money away, he said, taxpayers might think they are being overcharged.
Martin told the Journal he does not think the merger has to go through for EMS to be sustainable, and that changes should not be based solely on finances, but on providing better service.
“We should be looking at this for planning down the road, not to solve monetary problems,” he said.
However, Public Hospital District Commissioner Michael Edwards noted that approving the merger would have a “financial component.”
“Not that San Juan Island EMS is terribly hurting in that regard,” he explained, “but we are low in reserves. We have significant capital expenditures pending in the next three or four years.”
He also told the Journal that EMS staff could apply for additional grants under a fire district, which they cannot apply for now.
According to a report by the San Juan Island County Fire District 3 staff, a fire district can levy up to 96 cents more per $1,000 of assessed property value than what the local district currently requests, as well as a separate EMS levy on top of that. The San Juan Island EMS levy is at its maximum amount allowed under a hospital district.
Cardinale said that the merger should equally benefit both organizations, and should not occur just for the fire district to help the hospital district.
“Whether we go ahead with the merger in the future or not, we don’t want to take on somebody else’s debt or somebody else’s problems,” he said. “We’re not the cash cow; we’re not the Mr. Fix-it.”
The debt that the fire district could potentially adopt includes the EMS building, which may not be needed if the services merge, noted Hospital District Commissioner Anna Lisa Lindstrum. Both the fire and EMS chiefs agreed at the meeting that if the merger takes place, services should be housed in one building, possibly leaving the EMS facility with no use.
Martin told the Journal that the hospital district purchased the EMS building for $2 million in December 2012 and has $1.6 million left to be paid.
The hospital district also still owns the now-shuttered medical building on Spring Street, which was used before the hospital was built. It has been for sale since 2013, and Pam Hutchins, the superintendent for the hospital district, said it costs roughly $33,000 a year to maintain the property, including paying for landscaping and ensuring that the sprinkler system is operational.
Citizens interested in joining an advisory committee to review the possible merger can send letters of interest, by 5 p.m. on April 23, to firstname.lastname@example.org or Citizens Advisory Group, San Juan Island Fire, 1011 Mullis St. Friday Harbor, WA 98250. The board for the hospital and fire districts, as well as the Town Friday Harbor staff, will each pick one representative from applicants, and those three appointees will select two more members.
How can EMS merge with fire?
San Juan County Fire District 3 Chief Brad Creesy explained to the Journal two of several ways the departments could join – as outlined below. However, one of the merger’s issues is that the hospital district is bigger than the fire district, as it covers a few additional outer islands and the town, which affects how taxes that fund services are collected.
The hospital district includes the Town of Friday Harbor, and San Juan, Brown, Henry, Johns, Pearl, Stuart, and Spieden Islands. The fire district includes Brown and Pearl Islands and San Juan Island, except the Town of Friday Harbor.
Town residents receive fire protection through a contract between the town and the fire district. The contract is paid through the town’s general fund, which is primarily comprised of taxes on sales, property and public safety.
To move EMS from the hospital district’s management to the fire district’s, the hospital district board could contract services with fire staff. In this scenario, the hospital district board would legally allow the fire department staff to manage EMS. The current EMS levy would continue to be collected in the hospital district and the districts’ geographic areas would be negotiated through the contract, but could differ from the areas served today.
Another way to complete the merger is for the fire district to start offering EMS at the same time the hospital district stops. In this scenario, EMS would only apply to those currently served by the fire district. Voters in the district would have to approve a levy increase, as its current levy would not be able to cover the addition of EMS. In this scenario, the town staff would have to contract for EMS, like they currently contract for fire protection, or be included in the fire district by a vote of residents affected by the change. Other islands affected by the change would be reviewed as well.