CATHEDRAL CITY – On Oct. 9, after a fifth person has been elected to the City Council, has been sworn into office, and the election results certified, Fire Chief Paul S. Wilson will make a comprehensive presentation to Councilors about his department, which includes fire and ambulance services, Wilson told Uken Report.
The comprehensive presentation was prompted earlier this month when Councilmember Ernesto Gutierrez questioned whether the city could save money by eliminating the 30-year-old ambulance service and contracting instead with American Medical Response (AMR). The Coloradp-based company provides and manages community-based medical transportation services, including emergency (911), non-emergency and managed transportation, fixed-wing air ambulance and disaster response.
Gutierrez raised the question during a discussion of the biennial budget.
At the same budget discussion, Councilmember Raymond Gregory said, “We shouldn’t have any sacred cows. Every one of our operations should be subject to review. This is certainly a very serious one.”
Gregory, who represents District 5, added that he would welcome further discussion, which is now the comprehensive presentation. From there, the Council can decide whether it wants to look at making some type of a move or whether it’s satisfied with the value citizens are getting and can move forward.
Gutierrez has been widely ridiculed and chastised, primarily on social media for daring to make such a suggestion. City Councilmembers also received at least one letter in which they are cautioned of the misinformation Gutierrez has. You may read the letter by clicking here.
“We always welcome whatever Councilmembers want to bring up to the staff,” Wilson told Uken Report. “Those are typical questions of new Councilmembers. We appreciate the opportunity to be able to respond to those.”
Cathedral City is one of several cities in the Coachella that has its own ambulance service. Other cities are Indio, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, and Rancho Mirage, Wilson said. In 2018, Cathedral City provided a total of 3,314 ambulance transports, according to the Fire Department’s 2018 Annual Report.
AMR provides emergency medical transport service for eastern Riverside County, California, serving the cities of Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Coachella and unincorporated Coachella Valley.
When Gutierrez first raised the question during the budget discussion, Wilson said, “If you’re going to eliminate the ambulance service and go to AMR, you’re going to lay off 12 employees.” He also said there would be numerous vehicles involved.
Asked in a telephone interview with Uken Report to confirm that 12 employees would be laid off if the city were to contract with AMR, Wilson declined to confirm the number.
“We were instructed by Council to bring back a comprehensive presentation after the Council District 1 seat was filled,” Wilson said. “So, in courtesy to the full Council, it really would be best if we were able to answer those questions in the context of a complete presentation.”
Some who took issue with Gutierrez questioning teh ambulance service suggested it is nothing more than retaliation. In mid-March, the Cathedral City Professional Firefighters Association filed a lawsuit against the city alleging it failed to pay overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Less than a month later, Gutierrez questioned the ambulance service and overtime.
“I’m not aware of any (retaliation),” Wilson said. “I can’t speak to that, but I don’t believe so.”
Gutierrez, elected in November 2018, said it’s all about dollars and cents. As we review our upcoming budget, it is a great time to look at our city’s revenue and expenses, Gutierrez told Uken Report.
“Our city has a $44 million dollar annual budget, yet we have a hard time allocating money to do many things for our residents,” Gutierrez said. “For instance, we would have to struggle (financially) if we were to open the Cathedral City High School pool for our residents for the summer. We have no money to repair out streets. We do not have the funds to open a dog park. We are $70 million in outstanding liabilities, plus an additional $25 million. We must explore all options to see if we can save money, so we can use those (savings) to actually do things for our residents.”
Gutierrez, who represents District 4, said his No. 1 priority is residents’ safety.
“I will not jeopardize the lives of anyone in order to cut cost,” Gutierrez told Uken Report. “Having said that, I do not feel … it should be out of the question to have a presentation and explore our options of how our finances would be like it we were to consider transitioning to American Medical Response “AMR”, ambulance services. We should have an open mind and not just close our eyes and go with the flow.”
Our city currently bills $4.8 million in transport services and it only recovers $1.3 million, Gutierrez said. Our cost to operate our ambulance department is $3.3 million. According to information that I have received, our city could save well over a million dollars if we were to contracts with AMR.
Gutierrez claims that the Fire Department has spent $400,000 in overtime for fiscal year 2018/2019. So far, our fire department has spent $455,000 the first six months of this current fiscal year.
We as residents deserve an explanation, Gutierrez said. These expenses are “alarming.”
Suffice it to say the Fire Department budget is complex. Asked if the figures Gutierrez is using to make his argument are accurate, Wilson said, “I don’t want to get into a debate at this point about what’s true and what’s not. The budget can speak for itself.”
In a typical Fire Department operation, we pay for expenses upfront, Wilson said. Firefighters, for example, will be called out to wildfires throughout the state throughout the year. The Fire Department pays for those costs upfront and is subsequently reimbursed from the state, not only for their cost when they’re gone, but also for the cost of equipment it dispatches.
“We’re paid back for the firefighters that we call in on overtime to fill the vacancies while they’re gone,” Wilson said.
It’s not as black and white as it might appear on paper.
Gutierrez has also called into question firefighters’ sick time, overtime, staffing per shift, and more. When one of the firemen calls in sick, the replacement can rack 24 hours of overtime, per shift, according to Gutierrez. He says the city “can easily save money by not filling any shifts when someone calls in sick.” unless the department falls under a minimum of 12 firefighters per shift.
“The enormous amounts of the new tax revenue coming in to the city from cannabis should be better allocated,” Gutierrez said. “It would be great if we allocated funds for the police department, fire department, a pool for our youth, a dog park, a recreation center and … other things. Our minds should be focused on how we can more efficiently spend our money.”
The newly minted Councilmember makes no apologies for his question and for being a shrewd steward of taxpayers’ money.
“I did not run for City Council to win a popularity contest,” Gutierrez told Uken Report. “I want to make a difference in a positive way for our residents. Whether they voted for me or not, my effort is to benefit everyone in our city. I am not afraid to talk about issues. Some might want to talk about them, but decide to remain silent. A decision to explore the possibilities should not be a sin. I believe it should be looked at, especially if the potential for huge savings exist.”
Gutierrez said all the financial facts are listed in the city’s proposed biennial budget. It lists expenses from the previous fiscal year, and the first six months of this fiscal year. It is available for residents to review.
As residents continue to debate the issue, it is clear nothing will be decided until at least Oct. 9 when a comprehensive, contextual presentation and conversation will occur.
Meantime, Wilson said, “I think the important thing for the residents to understand is that we are proud to provide an efficient, effective level of service to the community. There’s a cost associated with doing that. And so, if you dialed 911 and someone happened to call in sick that day, you would expect the city to replace that position so that 911 could be answered. The same is true with firefighters and paramedics. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, we’re just not going to fill a position due to sickness or vacation or worker’s compensation.’ But when your child is drowning in the back yard, or you’re having a heart attack, or your house is on fire, you would expect an adequate level of service to be able to show up and take care of the emergency.”
Some of the clarification that he and others are trying to provide is that they don’t spend overtime superfluously.
“We spend it based upon an adequate level of protection for the community,” Wilson said.
- Ernesto Gutierrez: City of Cathedral City
- Raymond Gregory: Raymond Gregory
- Paul S. Wilson: Cathedral City Fire Department
- Cathedral City Ambulance: YouTube