Earlier this week, we got to meet Exhibit A.
When the City Council agreed 4-1 to charge a fee for receiving paramedic service from firefighters — what opponents might call a doorstep of death fine — residents of Tracy got to see firsthand how quickly the times are a-changin’.
The price for Tracy Fire Department-provided “advanced life support,” as City Manager Leon Churchill put it, will be $300 for Tracy residents and $400 for nonresidents.
The idea has merit, but we’ll get to the city’s side in a minute. First, let’s turn to the residents who, from all indications, are preparing torches and pitchforks for a run on the council chambers.
I get the initial anger. At first glance, this looks like a plan to profiteer off the sick and dying, to stopper a budget gap with the misfortune of others.
The umbrage is especially understandable if you consider, as Councilman Steve Abercrombie told me Wednesday, that people expect their taxes to pay for fire department services — all of them.
“Citizens expect police and fire when they live in a city,” said the only council member to vote against the fees, “and so I had a problem voting an additional tax on them, (making them) pay for that service that they should expect when they move into a city.”
When there’s an emergency, people don’t think about the cost of calling 9-1-1. Or at least they shouldn’t have to.
I favor universal health care because the value of your life should not be judged by the thickness of your wallet. The service provided by medical professionals benefits the whole community, which is why the whole community should pay for it.
But it follows, then, that cutting the budget for such service would hurt the whole community. This is where the city’s side of the story gets told.
From the perspective of city staff, the new fees are about protecting the quality of service residents have come to expect.
According to Churchill, the decision “provides insulation” to emergency response in a time when drastic reductions are the typical order of the day.
(Note that the money generated by the fees will go to the city’s general fund. Churchill said there’s an ethical understanding the money will “protect service from being reduced,” but I know of no in-writing guarantee.)
As for the idea that Tracy’s economic uncertainty fund — $25 million and falling fast — could have provided that padding, it was a possibility. But, as Churchill told me, that fund was designed with the idea an economic turnaround would be measured in months, not years.
As we know, that thought now belongs in Fantasyland. Tapping the reserve more than necessary “would just accelerate the date those funds would be exhausted,” Churchill said, bringing closer the day of to-the-bone cuts, possibly even to police or fire service.
So, instead of across-the-board tax increases or taking a knife to community protection, the city reasoned that those who use the paramedic services of the fire department should pay to ensure those services remain up-to-snuff. Call it a compromise between “user pays” and “social responsibility.”
According to the city manager, the number of people affected is relatively small — about 2,000 each year out of Tracy’s 80,000.
He also told me that the fee won’t be charged every time the fire department rolls to medical calls, which make up the bulk of fire crew responses. Only in “advanced life support situations” — heart attacks, lost limbs, etc. — in which the fire department provides intensive medical care would the fees be charged.
As for how those folks pay the city, Churchill insists there’s flexibility.
“The service is going to be provided,” he said. “…We’ll deal with how it gets paid for later.”
Insurance, if you have it, will cover you. If you don’t, there are payment plans and other options. If you really can’t afford it at all, there’s a chance you won’t have to pay at all.
And there’s always the up-front “insurance” option.
“(The policy) is not draconian,” Churchill said, though it does sound somewhat amorphous.
When all is said and done, Churchill hopes the city’s decision will prove a success.
He has some insider knowledge on the matter. Reading, Penn., site of his previous city manager gig, had a similar fee.
“It went over very well,” he said, noting that plenty of other cities choose to charge for such services instead of slash them.
Bottom line, when it comes to this City Council decision, there’s reason to complain. But there’s also reason to accept.
Like it or not, this is the new normal. No one said it was going to be easy.
• Share your thoughts with columnist Jon Mendelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.