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Guest Column: Important questions linger about ambulance proposal

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The current controversy regarding the ambulance service for Richmond County encapsulates how government – any government – always gets it wrong and infuriates the governed.

The present issue involves the mayor and the fire chief seeking absolute control of the ambulance services in Richmond County by the county fire department and, of course, the fire chief.

1. What is the problem with the existing arrangement in which the ambulance services in Richmond County are provided by a private company, Gold Cross? The present system appears to work very well. Gold Cross provides countywide ambulance service at no cost to the county for indigent services. I am a frequent customer of Gold Cross. I have found its services to be prompt; its equipment up-to-date and serviceable; and its employees knowledgeable, compassionate and professional.

I have not read of any issue as to the company’s competence or services except for a questionable complaint raised by the mayor, a leading proponent of a Fire Department takeover. So, absent some compelling evidence, which has not been produced, there is no apparent problem with the existing arrangement.

2. What is the proposal by the fire chief to replace Gold Cross? His first effort, through what I consider to be a stacked East Georgia EMS Council, was stopped in its tracks by Judge Sheryl Jolly issuing an injunction on the basis of conflicts of interest in the review process. It might be as well had been stopped on the basis of inefficiency and lack of coherence.

Presently the system is run by one provider with it own equipment and qualified personnel with a long history of local service. The chief, not having nearly enough ambulances and trained people to provide countywide ambulance coverage, proposed that several other providers – many not based in Augusta – each supply a limited number of ambulances, cover those emergencies the fire department could not, given the Fire Department has only three or four ambulances. A recent Augusta Chronicle article stated the fire department reduced its firefighting capabilities by moving one of its crews from firefighting to servicing its newly purchased ambulance.

Coordinating the supplemental carriers and the fire department with its limited capabilities, in what is always an emergency situation, is a recipe for disaster.

3. What is the cost of the proposed new arrangement? The cost of the existing arrangement with Gold Cross to the county is zero. The cost of the proposed arrangement has not been disclosed.

What we do know is Richmond County taxpayers will bear the expenses of starting a new ambulance service almost from scratch, purchasing expensive ambulances and auxiliary equipment; installing new communications systems; hiring and training an untold number of new personnel and supervisors; providing real estate for housing the equipment; and maintaining the system forever. Does the present cost of zero look like a bargain?

4. Why change? Competition in ambulance services is necessary. But providing public services involve more than so many dollars per trip and some supplement for services to the needy, which must be paid to get the outlier ambulance services on board. No reason has been given of the need for change except the longing of the mayor and fire chief for control of ambulance services in the county.

In this instance, the taxpayers of Richmond County are being told, not asked, to pay for a brand new, expensive service, involving untold millions of dollars in the future, subject to the overview of commissioners who do not ask the most basic questions or receive answers to the present or future costs of what I believe will be the second-largest payroll and most equipment-intensive department in the county.

This is another example why taxpayers despise government. The very people we elect to represent us in Richmond County are being rolled by their own employees. I can’t really blame the mayor and the fire chief. They are just doing what bureaucrats have been doing for centuries – expanding their kingdoms at no personal cost to themselves.

The writer is an Augusta attorney.

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