Budget sparks debate over Rogue River Fire District

Rogue River Fire District firefighters, worried their jobs may be at risk as the district struggles with budget woes, are taking aim at their current chief and the board of directors.

Talk of restructuring at the fire district has the firefighters of Union Local 3515 concerned that streamlining may mean the loss of the Ambulance Service Area in Rogue River, Wimer and Gold Hill.

If the ASA were to be cut, seven to eight positions could also be cut, said union representatives in a letter detailing their grievances with the district board and Rogue River Fire Chief Ben Ramsey.

"The voters and taxpayers worked hard to get the ambulance service started here locally to begin with, and it now appears that the board is willing to drop this service without informing the public," wrote Jeff Fitzgerald, president of the firefighters' union.

Under contract with Jackson County, the district is the sole provider of emergency ground ambulance service in Rogue River and Evans Valley — about 200 square miles, more than two and a half times the area under primary fire protection from the district.

Board President Mark Reagles stressed there will be ambulance service of some sort in the area — through the fire district, Mercy Flights or other private company — because the county is mandated to provide emergency medical service coverage.

But with the fire district's ASA contract up for renewal in July, the board and the chief are taking a hard look at what it can do to narrow the gap between costs and revenue to run the nonprofit ambulance service, Reagles said.

"No one wants to see this go away," said Reagles, who is city administrator for Rogue River. "We live out here. The ambulance is probably the most important service we provide."

About 60 percent of the fire district's transports are Medicare patients, Ramsey said. While the numbers of patients transported have remained relatively unchanged at just below 800 annually for the past three years, the district billed nearly $945,000 for its ambulance services, but net receipts came to only about $419,000 after write-downs, he added.

"We know what Medicare is going to write down. We know what we're going to bill out. And right off the top of that, historically speaking, we're going to be writing off about 55 percent," Ramsey said.

The district says it needs about $1,200 in compensation per ambulance run to cover expenses. Medicare allows the district to charge its clients only about $535. And Medicare pays just $427.88, leaving a balance to the patient of $106.97 — and the district holding the bag for the net loss, Ramsey said.

Up to now, the district has tried to close the gap by shifting costs to insurance companies and to people who pay their own bills. Ramsey said the cost-shifting is basically what the federal government is doing to the district, shifting what the district says it needs to what the government is willing to pay.

An anticipated growth in population that might have helped increase the district's revenues through privately insured residents didn't happen, Reagles said. But the population continues to age as costs to provide the ambulance service continues to rise, he added.

Ramsey said he was hired to help the district find ways to narrow the gap between increasing costs of providing the ambulance services and dwindling revenue. And that hasn't been an easy task, he said.

"We've been aware that this was coming," said Ramsey. "The board and I are continuing to work through these things."

The firefighters' letter also outlined what they say were missed cost saving opportunities for the district. Almost $15,000 could have been brought in by selling flu shots, $9,000 could be saved by purchasing a used fire hose instead of a new hose, and the chief wasted $2,000 on legal bills to avoid paying a captain $200 in overtime, the letter said.

The local union also expressed concerns over Ramsey's position as an administrative chief. The firefighters want an operational chief who responds to calls when dispatched and directs fire investigations.

"The limited staffing in our fire district creates the need for an operations-oriented chief, who is available, willing and capable to respond to alarms to assist and provide leadership when needed," Fitzgerald wrote.

"... By his habit the Fire Chief has refused to function in a capacity that would be beneficial to the district. The Board has backed his decision by stating 'he is not paid to run calls.'"

The 15-member staff consists of Ramsey, 11 firefighters, two office staff and a financial officer. Ramsey said he does not respond to routine medical calls.

"We had four (structure) fires last year," Ramsey said. "The majority of our (calls are) medical related."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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