I attended the April 4 special meeting in person, but even so, there were things I missed, or comments I did not note at the beginning of the meeting that had special relevance to the overall presentation and the conclusions about that presentation, so rewatching it online was instructive. If you haven’t watched, and you live in Upper Providence and you want to keep on living, I highly recommend you educate yourself on this topic as decisions are going to be made on this issue on Monday.
Regular readers of this blog know that I have been pretty vocal in my assertions that the newly elected Democrats shamelessly lied and politicized Fire and Emergency services during their campaign to get elected and in doing so, did a great disservice to the residents of this Township. For those of you who may be wondering if this meeting has changed my mind on the competency or integrity of the Democrats decision making process on providing public safety services to the Township, it has not. In fact, this meeting only solidified my opinion of these Board members as short-sighted, lacking in vision, and timid in their committment to do what is best for the residents of this Township.
During my term as Township Supervisor, I spent countless hours devoted to the issue of providing Fire and Emergency services to the Township, and as such, I have definite opinions on how such services should be provided. As detailed in an earlier post, the previous Board had adopted a way forward on the provision of Fire and EMS services in March of 2017 via an objective, Township staff-prepared confidential fifteen-page white paper that included findings of fact and recommendations. Based on the information presented in that memo, the previous Board decided to order an ambulance and conducted interviews with the three township EMS service providers to determine which company would staff the ambulance. The contract was not awarded because of the election results.
At the 2/5/18 meeting, the newly elected Democrats refused to move forward with this plan, cancelling the purchase of the ambulance and whining that they had only been in office for 35 days and therefore needed another 60 days to “study” this issue.
Apparently, “study” does not mean read the 15 page staff white paper or any of the body of work produced under the previous Board or watch any of the meetings on this issue.
One of the presentation’s first slides asks the question, “Why are we here?” I have a slightly different answer to that question than the one provided by Township Manager Tim Tieperman and it comes later on in this post. Be warned, this post is a long one, to give this important topic the attention it deserves.
As usual, embedding is not permitted, so the video can be found HERE.
What follows is an abbreviated version of the publicly presented slide show at the 4/4/18 meeting. This is a summary only, and again, if you live in Upper Providence Township and you care about your life and your property, you really should watch the meeting in it’s entirety.
Tieperman started off the presentation by reminding everyone in the room whose responsibility this is.
Because of the odd shape of the Township, the geographical challenges are the same for Fire and EMS services. The following map (which is not from the slide presentation) illustrates how a centrally located Fire and EMS facility will provide better coverage to the interior of the Township, an area which has experienced the most recent growth in population.
Demographics and geography are factors affecting Fire response times.
Moving on to EMS challenges:
Geography and call zones impact response times for EMS service, which, it should be noted, are within acceptable parameters according to the State:
The Township Staff recommended measurable goals for the provision of Fire and EMS responses.
Staff’s policy recommendations for achieving these goals:
The addition of personnel and hours that the paid crew will operate the Township’s Engine 93 was further analyzed on the following slides.
A little elaboration is called for at this point. I agree wholeheartedly with this recommendation, and I presume that the Board does as well, but it should be noted that this proposal is calling for a $206,841 increase in the township’s fire protection budget and the hiring of two additional staff members to accomodate the additional hours.
The four volunteer fire companies (Black Rock, Trappe, Royersford and Collegeville) and the three EMS squads (Friendship, Trappe and Lower Providence) who provide first due service to Upper Providence are funded collectively in the amount of $290,000 per year. Up until two years ago, none of that funding pool was being distributed to our EMS squads. And only last year, the Board adopted a new fire funding formula, which reallocated that funding to more fairly compensate the service providers according to their level of service. The details of that funding formula can be found HERE.
Point being, the level of service that we have been receiving from the volunteers has been declining (as evidenced by the need to provide 12 hour/7day a week paid fire staffing), but the township funding level of those services has remained constant for decades. This is not an indictment of any of the volunteer fire companies, simply a fact, and one that is not unique to Upper Providence. As Tieperman notes in detail at the beginning of the presentation, volunteerism is way down all across the Commonwealth and municipalities are struggling with the fiscal ramifications of providing fire protection without volunteers.
At the 58:27 mark in the question and answer section at the end of the presentation, resident, (and Montgomery Township firefighter) Frank Colleli raises an excellent point about how the future plans for the centralized fire station will affect the Township’s funding levels for the volunteer companies. Currently, Upper Providence supports four first due companies which are funded by the Township because of their first due status; Colleli’s question notes that the centralized station would make the Township first due at many locations throughout the Township and our volunteer companies would go from first due status to mutual aid. As Colleli correctly notes, we spend a lot of money on the volunteer companies, and other Townships, like neighboring Limerick, do not financially support companies like Trappe, a company who is often responding to calls within that Township under mutual aid.
For now, the Board has no plans to adjust the current funding formula, a point Assistant Township Manager Bryan Bortnichak reiterated at the end of his response to Mr. Colleli’s question.
At this juncture in the post, I’m simply going to remind my readers of the following representations made by the Democrats during the campaign last fall.
This is another recommendation I agree is necessary, but I want to pause here and note that in order to build this necessary facility, the Administration facility had to be built first, so a lot of the Democrats’ demagoguery surrounding the new Township Administration Building is, again, short sighted and lacking in vision. As mentioned previously, the Black Rock Campus improvements were outlined in the Township’s 2010 Comprehensive Plan Update starting on Page 29 which was approved by John Pearson, Phil Barker and Bob Fieo.
The cost for a centralized Fire and EMS facility, which is contemplated to be built across the street from the Police and Administration buildings, is estimated between $3.2 million and $4.0 million according to Bortnichak.
I should also note that a mere 90 days into their term, the new Board has already held a meeting that necessitated a much larger venue than is currently available through existing Township facilities, even if the old meeting hall was still usable. When I mentioned to Pearson after the meeting that it was too bad that the new Administration facility wasn’t done yet, he chuckled first, then snapped, “I still think it’s too big.” Oh really? Based on what? Our shrinking population? Again: short sighted.
I’m going to skip policy recommendation #4 for right now and come back to it at the end of the post, since it is the main reason for the meeting and there is a lot—quite a lot–to unpack on this subject.
Staff’s proposals would result in an 18.8% increase over the Township’s current FEMS budget and greatly improve public safety in the Township.
For all of those who got the Democrats campaign mailer above and were wondering, “Where did that money go?” Here is the answer to that question. This levy was implemented because the prior Board knew that the costs for providing Fire and EMS services were going to increase, and increase quickly. As you can see, the levy does not even cover the entire current fire budget, and it only offsets a portion of the police budget, which is approximately $6 million per year. Of course, now that the Democrats know where that money went, do you think they will apologize for lying to the public about it?
Staff is proposing to change the allocation of this money to more adequately support the areas that most need the dollars to support them.
And we are the seventh lowest in Montgomery County overall.
Long Range FEMS Plan
After noting what has already been accomplished on this issue, Tieperman presented the following milestones:
Why are we here?
Here’s the real reason why this meeting was necessary.
As readers may recall, since I reminded you all of it at the beginning of this post, there was a great hue and cry over having to make a decision on this issue after “only being in office for 35 days!” The newly elected Democrats insisted that they needed an additional 60 days for “further study” on this issue. The result of that “study” was this meeting.
The Township proposed two options for meeting the EMS needs of the township, outlined in the following slides Alternative 1 is the full service Ambulance Option:
As a point of full disclosure, these two cons were also sticking points for me during the ambulance evaluation process. At about 55:15 in the meeting, Vagnozzi addresses these “cons” points with some statistics. He notes that there were 1,602 EMS calls in the Township last year and of that number, a full 25% were not responded to by the first due ambulance assigned. Vagnozzi’s argument is that the only reason for this is because the “ambulance squads are busy,” and their response areas are kind of like a “jigsaw puzzle,” in that whoever is closest, responds. Additionally, he notes that the coverage area for the three squads assigned to Upper Providence is bigger than it appears on the map that was presented, which only looked at areas within the boundaries of Upper Providence. These squads have first due responsibilities in other municipalities and take about 4,000 calls per year each.
At 1:19:40 Vagnozzi talks about the “tethering” of the ambulance or medic response unit to the township and states that in practical application, it will not happen. He contends that a paramedic or EMT is going to go where he is needed, whether he is in an ambulance or a medic response unit. Our fire companies and our police regularly respond to the call for mutual aid outside of our boundaries; it is folly to think that a medic responder won’t do the same. He also elaborates on how these services are delivered, reiterating that the squads are “busy” but noting that this first due issue he brought up earlier is a “capacity” problem, and that a centrally located ambulance in Upper Providence will alleviate some of the capacity issues and allow all the squads to better serve their response areas.
Regarding mutual aid and the “tethering” of a medic responder to this Township, I have to agree with Vagnozzi on this unequivocally. Upper Providence has no “home” ambulance; we therefore rely on the services of EMS providers who are located outside of our boundaries. We also have only one “home” volunteer fire company, Black Rock, that covers approximately 55% of the Township, with the other 45% of the Township being covered by volunteer fire companies located in other municipalities. Additionally, there are many other local fire and EMS companies with no first due responsibilities to this township who respond to emergencies here. Having a medic responder resource that we are unwilling to “share” with our neighbors in the spirit of mutual aid not only seems short-sighted, but downright selfish and un-neighborly.
The Medic Responder unit alternative was discussed next.
Budgetary comparison, Year One Analysis:
The Year One analysis presented above is inclusive of the capital outlay for a vehicle, either an Ambulance or a Medic Responder unit. The payroll would be for a contracted employee, therefore, there is no additional insurance expense or increase in Township staff levels (I asked). Vagnozzi notes throughout the presentation that these numbers are not inclusive of subscriptions to the ambulance companies or corporate donations.
After Year One, the operating costs of the ambulance decrease dramatically and will continue to decrease as housing comes on line and call volume increases. Indeed, it is conceivable that within the next two to five years, the call volume will be so high that the Ambulance could be self-sustaining. On the other hand, the costs for the Medic Responder will never decrease, regardless of call volume.
The grid above is a handy visual, but I have a few problems with it as the categories are not weighted. If the Board is following it’s mandate, the first three line items in this grid should be given more weighting than the other three, especially since line items 4 and 5 are in contention and Vagnozzi, with whom I have had my issues in the past over this very subject, makes compelling arguments on both of these points.
I would also take issue with rating the Ambulance option as a 2 for cost impact as opposed to a 3 since there were no subscriptions or corporate donations taken into account for the budgetary analysis and the costs for the ambulance decline year over year while the budgetary impact of the medic responder never decreases With these items properly weighted and adjusted, the impact of either option is about equal.
…..And here’s where the politics comes in
At 1:25:00, Vagnozzi states flat out, “If we do a medic responder, we are failing this community.” He then states that, “There are people on this Board who are caring more about the organizations that serve us than the community itself.”
Now as a little bit of inside baseball, in August 2017, Trappe, Friendship and Lower Providence ambulance squads all prepared and presented proposals, including budgets, for their respective companies to contract with Upper Providence and provide staffing for our Township-owned ambulance. After the election, but before I left the Board, one of those squads (and I am not going to say which one), met exclusively with the newly elected Democrats before they were sworn in and gave them a completely different set of budgetary numbers than they presented to us in August. Those numbers, which I have seen, show that if the Township awards them the contract, they will be negatively impacted and if the Township doesn’t award them the contract, they will be negatively impacted. In fact, the only option that will sustain their Organization is for the Township to do nothing.
I think the Democrats were perfectly happy doing nothing based solely on this limited information, until they got backed into a corner by the facts and Vagnozzi. So the next best thing to doing nothing is to do as little as possible.
The diffference here is between supporting an expanded service versus an additional service. Many people in Upper Providence already “subscribe” to an ambulance service and even more pay for healthcare insurance that covers ambulance service. Implementing an ambulance service in Upper Providence would only require subsidizing the income of an existing ambulance organization to staff a centrally-located, Township-owned ambulance, with reducing costs year over year, until the service eventually pays for itself.
The costs of implementing a Medic Responder not only never decrease, but the Township is essentially asking the residents to double pay for this service in perpetuity. If they need transport, the ambulance company will still bill their insurance company (or the patient directly) and their need for an ambulance subscription will not go away even though their tax dollars are supporting an additional service.
Resident Dr. Icenhower, apparently seeing that the majority of the Board is leaning towards the Medic Responder option, asks if this issue hasn’t been batted around enough and whether the Township going to get the best “bang for it’s buck” with this option. At 1:31:59, Higgins responds that, “The Medic Responder Unit is the easiest way to go, in my opinion, at this point.”
Calci follows up those remarks at 1:32:34 with, “For right now, this is what we are looking at, till the next two years when we’ll build the central location for Fire and Emergency Services location. At that point, when the numbers in the center of town maybe increase, then we can re-calibrate whether we are on the right track. So I don’t want to say that we’ll never get an ambulance. Maybe in two years it will make more sense to do that.”
At 1:33:27, resident Frank Colleli returns to the microphone and brings up the obvious budgetary point about the ambulance vs. the medic responder in years two and beyond. He asks, “Isn’t there more cost benefit to the residents” by choosing the ambulance?
Pearson responds with a defensive, “If all you care about is dollars and cents,” and a snarky, “you’re entitled to your opinion,” which is becoming typical disrespectful treatment by Pearson of residents with whom he disagrees. Funny how at the beginning of this meeting he was “still struggling with what most of these [EMS] terms mean,” and by the end, he’s the expert, lecturing a professional firefighter on EMS services.
Resident and Black Rock Fire Company member Steve Smith approaches and wants to know why the Board never considered putting an ambulance at Black Rock Fire Station, claiming it does not have to be centrally located. To that, Calci responded, “We didn’t want to disrupt the applecart and pick an agency to fill the spot and disrupt the other circles that surround the Township.”
The Democrats have a palpable aversion to the idea of buying a full service ambulance, as if buying equipment for emergency services is some ground breaking precedent (the Township buys equipment for Black Rock Volunteer Fire Company all the time). But somehow, the idea of a purchasing limited use Medic Responder unit is not at all offensive. I’d give real money to understand their objections here.
In the two solid years that the Board debated this issue, the idea of having a medic responder as an alternative to a full service ambulance was never proposed or considered. Bearing in mind that it was a brand new idea, and remembering that the Democrats’ whole reason for the 60 day delay was to “get educated” on this issue, why weren’t there any questions on this service from Pearson, Higgins, or Calci?
Why was there only a vigorous defense of their pre-determined conclusion? A conclusion which did not offer a solution to the problem, but instead, was about only what they would NOT do: put a centrally located Ambulance in Upper Providence Township.
How much staff time and corresponding tax dollars were wasted in having staff generate yet another report when they just did this same analysis only a year ago?
It’s fun to sit on a dais and subject people to your little “tidbits of wisdom” and give away tax dollars to your friends and pass meaningless resolutions against Donald Trump, and maybe that’s all they thought this job was going to be. And maybe some of you elected them to do just that. But for a bunch of supposed liberals offering a “fresh perspective,” they sure are pretty closed-minded. Despite all of the information they have been given, and all of the staff hours spent in service to this project, they had already decided what they were going to do on this issue way back in December. They just needed 60 days to create a fact set to back up their politically derived conclusion.
Each Board member talked about doing what was “easy, ” or “quick.” They talked about “revisiting” this issue at a later date, about this being the best solution for “right now,” or “at this point.” About “not disrupting the applecart.” Calci herself talked about implementing the ambulance option in two years–which, if the Medic Responder unit is really the “best” option that Pearson says it is, why even talk about it as a temporary solution? Shouldn’t the Medic Responder unit BE the long range solution? Didn’t Pearson promise us a “comprehensive approach to Fire and Emergency Services and a plan that will take us into the future” at the very beginning of the meeting?
Instead, we are asked to believe that this short-sighted, limited-term option is the best solution for our residents.
Let’s be very clear about one thing: The decision on how the Township will provide Fire and EMS services rests with the Board of Supervisors, and ONLY the Board of Supervisors. They can try to generate “cover” for their decisions with their appeals to authority. They can direct staff to come up with a nice dog and pony show for the public and they can ask staff to make a recommendation, and they can poll the county and talk to ambulance workers, but at the end of the day, it’s their decision how this matter is handled. If a preventable tragedy occurs now that these deficiencies have been identified, and the Board’s response to that information is found to be inadequate, this is not on anyone but them.
The buck, after all, stops here.