Supervisors Call for Comprehensive Review of County Fire Authority

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Two Orange County supervisors on Tuesday called for a comprehensive discussion about how the countywide fire agency is funded and delivers services, just as county leaders move toward issuing a new bid request for ambulance providers.

“We should lead that discussion,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer said during a discussion about paramedic fees.

“I think we need to understand what the potential future of the [Orange County] Fire Authority is, and what it would mean to Orange County” if Irvine leaves the Fire Authority and the agency is dismantled as Spitzer said he fears.

Irvine officials have raised concerns they are overpaying for fire services and have had public discussions about potentially leaving the Fire Authority, which was set up in the wake of the 1994 county bankruptcy and funded primarily through property taxes.

Meanwhile, Chairman Shawn Nelson cautioned that Irvine’s threat is unrealistic.

“Irvine can’t just leave,” Nelson said. “They don’t have the option to just walk” because all of their money is dedicated to the Fire Authority by law.

But Nelson did signal support for a broader discussion.

“If this thing needs to be refigured, let’s get the adults involved in this” and figure it out, said Nelson, adding that he has “a problem with this entire funding structure.”

“Perhaps we can huddle up offline.”

The discussion came as the Board of Supervisors considered whether to continue having ambulance companies bill for Fire Authority paramedic services.

Supervisors decided 3-2 to stick with the current process and require upcoming ambulance contractors to bill patients for the Advanced Life Support or ALS fee.

Nelson and Supervisor John Moorlach opposed the fee’s inclusion, with Nelson asserting that the cost for paramedic services is already covered through property taxes.

“They’re already on the clock. There’s no additional cost to ride with a patient to the hospital. They’re already being paid,” Nelson said.

Fire Authority officials have said the ALS fee revenue covers only 60 percent of their costs for the paramedic service.

“It’s a very normal process” to collect the ALS fee, said Dave Kendig, the Fire Authority’s general counsel.

As the discussion winded down, one supervisor openly critiqued how a fee discussion emerged into a philosophical debate about how services are delivered.

“To me it was an overreach. We needed to solve the billing issue,” said Supervisor Pat Bates.

For his part, Spitzer criticized how the board keeps having “piecemeal discussions” instead of taking a broad look at issues.

And Nelson said the nature of fire service has changed dramatically in recent decades.

“In excess of 98 percent of the calls have nothing to do with putting out fires,” said Nelson.

As supervisors prepared to discuss the issue on Tuesday, a local resident publicly reminded them that past ambulance contracts in Orange County have been awarded to firms, such as Shoreline Corp., that were ranked lower in the bidding process.

Violations by Shoreline “endangered public safety,” said Westminster resident Darrell Nolta, adding that he questions “how this process is going to be truly conducted fairly.”

In Westminster, Shoreline Corp. was nearly disqualified because of inadequate disclosures.

The company lacked the required two new ambulances for the contract, failed to have a required radio system and misrepresented its ability to offer a computerized patient-monitoring system, according to a report.

Yet the Westminster City Council awarded their contract to Shoreline in 2012 over competitor Care Ambulance.

Even after Shoreline received the contract, it still failed to comply with the contract requirements to buy ambulances and radios.

Nolta also criticized Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s suggestion that the supervisors place themselves on the panel that reviews and ranks the bids.

The makeup of the panel wasn’t discussed by supervisors on Tuesday.

The draft request for proposals is expected to go to supervisors next Tuesday for comment and review.

Then final comments are set to be collected by the county Health Care Agency before the document is sent to the state Emergency Medical Services Authority for approval.

Nolta reminded supervisors that many people are keeping tabs on the bidding process, as evidenced by a letter from state officials.

“I’m watching, and I know from the letter other people are watching it,” he said.

You can contact Nick Gerda directly at ngerda@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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