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'Sometimes it’s not just the dollars and cents that matter'

Zoe Greszler • Dec 20, 2018 at 2:00 AM

WAKEMAN — When asked what swayed the decision of which ambulance service to use, Vermilion River Ambulance District board president Don Daniels said it was “community involvement.”

And for those who attended the two-hour session Tuesday, it wouldn’t have been hard to see why the board listened to the powerful and sentimental force with which the community voiced their opinion. The board of the Vermilion River Ambulance District makes decisions on bids for emergency medical service (EMS) and distributes taxes to its service area — the village of Wakeman and the townships of Wakeman, Townsend and Florence.

As is its routine, after its September board meeting, the district began looking at other EMS proposals as its contract with Citizens Ambulance Service was drawing to a close, set to expire Jan. 1.

At the end of each contract term with Citizens, which has served the community for more than 40 years, the district asks for proposals “to make sure we’re getting the best service we can for the money we have,” Daniels said. The district began to consider the idea of changing companies in open sessions at its Nov. 18 board meeting. Details of the contracts offered weren’t revealed until Thursday's meeting, as is the custom.

LifeCare Ambulance Inc. sent its chief operating officer, Don Schiffbauer, to discuss the contract further with the board and answer any questions from community residents.

In years past, Citzens’ price for its services was “the best by far” in comparison to its competitors, residents said.

While exact prices, which depended upon a contract length, weren’t discussed openly, LifeCare was offering the district ambulance services “similar in structure” to what Citizens offered, remaining housed in the district. It would have employed “about 8.4 full-time employees,” Schiffbauer said. Two paramedics would have remained on site and served the community 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, in addition to being on site of and manning the various community functions, as Citizens does.

“For whatever reason, this year the quotes came in extremely competitive,” board member Nancy Delong said, echoing the board president’s remarks of wanting to offer the best services for the community.

Delong also indicated that Citizens Ambulance may leave something to be desired.

Area resident Becky White said while it’s “good to know” the board was looking into the best quote, she wanted to praise Citizens. She added that “the idea of loyalty” was worth more than a few dollars that the community could save.

“They have served our community well for many years, attended school events and church functions,” White said. “Sometimes it’s not just the dollars and cents that matter. ... But even if Citizens was a little bit more, I would feel more comfortable with Citizens because I feel like they know the area better.”

“Well, that’s questionable,” Delong said.

She said she had witnessed and spoke to many residents who had noted an ambulance starting out one way to respond to a call, then, just a couple minutes later, saw the vehicle retrace its steps to head back the other way because it went the wrong direction. She said some of these incidents could have been because of a call that was canceled en route, “but not all of them.”

“Frequently it’s that they’re going the wrong way and have to go back,” Delong said.

“In talking to ones at the fire station, frequently the fire department gets to the call before the ambulance. And the fire department is a volunteer department,” she said, referring to the Wakeman Fire District. “They have to stop what they doing ... get to station, board the fire truck then get to the site and they still get there faster than the ambulance that is literally sitting there waiting (for a call).”

Delong also cited financial issues which Citizens has faced recently. Delong said two years ago the company's previous fiscal officer took out $106,000 in unsecured loans for the business.

“Citizens has frankly been operating on a shoestrings for years,” she said. “They aren’t securing that much to pay down that loan very quickly.”

Since then, Citizens has replaced the fiscal officer, EMS coordinator Lucas Palm said.

When Citizens had approached the Vermilion River Ambulance District for more funds, Delong said the board asked if Citizens could explain why the extra funds were needed.

“They said no they couldn’t and no they wouldn’t,” Delong said.

Palm said over the past two years Citizens has paid off nearly half of that debt and has, “and will continue,” to make strides toward its improvement where necessary.

In the hour-and-40-minute discussion that ensued Tuesday, many people raised questions, voiced concerns with changing companies and backed the long-time service provided by Citizens Ambulance. Daniels said he was “happy with” the turnout and residents voicing their passion for the subject; he cited it as the determining factor in the decision for a contract.

Delong was the only nay-sayer in the 3-1 vote to accept Citizens’ three-year contract following a 10-minute executive session in determining the district’s decision. After the motion passed, she told the 40-some person crowd her vote was cast as a representative of Wakeman village council, which “strongly felt that I should vote for LifeCare over Citizens.”

“It's clear that you guys have a lot of faith in and affinity for Citizens,” LifeCare’s Schiffbauer told the crowd.

Despite LifeCare not having earned the contract, he said the service was looking forward to working together toward the betterment of both businesses.

Citizens Ambulance has been operating out of Wakeman since it was founded in 1978. There are three ambulances in the fleet and 20 personnel — two full-time employees and 18 part-timers.

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