The Spokane City Council’s decision last week to cut a deputy fire chief position has angered administrators and Mayor Mary Verner.
“It was not discussed with me. It was not discussed with the chief. It was completely unexpected,” Verner said. “What has been created here is an impossibility for getting the job done.”
Verner said earlier this week that if the council combines that decision with other “problematic budget outcomes,” she’ll veto the budget.
“I’m going to look very carefully at what happens next Monday,” she said in an interview. Vetoing a budget is “a lot of work for a lot of people, and I won’t do it lightly, but if I have to, I will.”
The council last week voted 5-2 to eliminate a deputy fire chief position. The full 2011 budget is expected to be finalized by the council on Monday.
Spokane’s deputy fire chiefs earn from $121,000 to $148,000 a year, plus benefits, depending on experience.
Fire leaders say the eliminated position, which would oversee emergency medical services, is essential to the department’s operations. The position oversees most aspects of medical response, including the city’s ambulance contract with American Medical Response. The job also tracks response times, ensures the department meets all EMS regulations and makes sure medics are properly supplied and trained, said Fire Chief Bobby Williams.
Last year, 84 percent of the Spokane Fire Department’s calls were related to EMS.
“This is not something that is taken lightly by us,” Williams said. EMS is “probably the highest risk exposure for liability that the city has.”
Most council members say the position, which has been vacant since March, is drastically overpaid. They note that fire officials weren’t planning to fill the job until late next year to save money in the 2011 budget. Councilman Richard Rush said removing the job from the budget simply forces Williams to better justify the position and pay scale.
Councilman Jon Snyder said delays in hiring for the job are proof that it costs taxpayers too much.
“If we want accountability we need to cut this position down to size so it’s manageable, we can hire for it, and it’s not an economic encumbrance for us moving forward,” he said.
Council President Joe Shogan and Councilman Steve Corker, who voted against removing the position, said cutting the deputy chief job is akin to micromanaging City Hall.
“We are now going to assume the responsibility of professionally evaluating 2,000 positions in the city of Spokane,” Corker said. “What we’re doing by this discussion is setting a precedent that allows us to penetrate any one of the divisions or departments.”
But Snyder said the council is simply performing its duty.
“We’re not micromanaging when we use our position as overseers, as the citizens’ eyes and ears in City Hall to point out something we don’t feel is right,” he said.
In Spokane, firefighters are the first responders to medical emergencies. AMR transports patients to hospitals.
Williams said nearly all large fire departments that deal with medical response have a position to oversee EMS. The Spokane Valley Fire Department, for instance, has a battalion chief position overseeing EMS.
Spokane Valley Chief Mike Thompson said the salary Spokane pays its EMS chief isn’t out of line with what other departments pay.
“It’s a lot to take care of, and it’s a full-time job,” he said. “It’s such a significant part of the operations of what we do.”
He added that it would be problematic for someone without firefighting or paramedic experience to manage EMS – as some Spokane City Council members suggest.
“I think that might be difficult for the layperson,” Thompson said.
Rich Kness handled EMS oversight until March, when he retired. The city currently is contracting with Kness to complete some EMS work. As of November, the city had paid Kness about $13,000 under the contract – nearly all of it to help complete a software upgrade related to emergency dispatch, Williams said. Most of his other duties were absorbed by Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer and the two other deputy chiefs, though one of those chiefs recently resigned to take a new job out of state, Williams said. The council has left money in the budget to pay for the other vacant deputy chief position.
Councilman Bob Apple said the city needs to completely change its oversight of EMS. He noted that even with a chief assigned to watch over the city ambulance contract, AMR still overbilled citizens by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We need to rethink,” Apple said. “We have a problem, and continuing as we have been isn’t going to solve it.”
As a result of a class-action lawsuit, AMR agreed this year to pay just under $1 million plus interest to more than 12,000 ambulance users who were overbilled by AMR over a six-year period.
Others, however, say the AMR overbilling incident is proof that a deputy chief overseeing EMS is necessary.
“I went through this AMR thing for four years and what I got out of it was a clear-cut demand from the citizens that there be a watchdog on this deal,” Shogan said.
This fall, the city’s acting human resources director, Erin Jacobson, asked the city Ethics Committee to determine if the Kness contract violated the city’s ethics policy regarding employment.
The committee ruled in October that it is acceptable for the city to hire a recently employed employee by contract. The ethics policy is aimed at preventing city workers from quitting and working for private companies that work on city business within one year of city employment, it said.
Kness “was hired by the city, is representing the city and has the same interest as the city,” said the commission’s written decision.