Could the city's claims that the ambulance service was losing money and had to be nixed have been a "deceitful attempt" to get rid of some of the city's firefighters? That's the conclusion following an independent audit of the city's finances that allegedly shows that the ambulance has been in the black every year except one for the past five years. The decision to end the city ambulance service as of September 1 was made at a City Council meeting last month. The vote was unanimous.
Greg Ireland, president of the Firefighters Local 896, met with us today outside the city fire hall to talk about that audit.
"It's plain and simple: the numbers don't lie," he said. "Revenues exceeded expenditures, period."
If you visit the new Batavia ambulance Web site you can get a closer look at those numbers. Ireland had the audit put together by Kevin Decker, president of the Albany-based independent firm, Decker Economics. In his report, summarized in a memo that Ireland gave to us today, Decker shows that in the fiscal year 2003-04, the city ambulance fund "recorded an operating surplus (revenues minus expenses) of $529,766." In 2004-05, the fund posted a surplus of $414,006. In 2005-06, the fund posted a surplus of $570,807.
That's the year that things start to change, according to the report.
"To compensate the General fund for resources expended by fire department personnel directly related to ambulance services, the City provided for a transfer from the Ambulance fund to the General fund (of) $921,609."
This shift of expenses from one fund to another—a typical city budget includes several funds, including: general, fire, sewer and water—is known as an interfund transfer, by which expenses or revenues generated within one fund are used to offset those of another.
So, in the following year, 2006-07, Decker's report explains that the ambulance fund posted a deficit of $454,799. That deficit is explained in these terms on the Web site:
"Since people were beginning to question the inter-fund transfers, the city created a better way to hide their ambulance money. Instead of just picking a number out of the sky, City Hall decided to remove 35% (approximately $1 million) of Firefighter's wages and benefits from the General Fund and put those expenses against the Ambulance Fund. So without the "transfer", but adding $1 million of "false" expenses, the Ambulance Fund showed a deficit of $454,799."
The interfund transfers continued in 2007-08, but the ambulance fund still posted a surplus of $286,038, according to the report.
The bottom line is that the ambulance service helps subsidize the cost of the City's fire department. In fact, in FY 2007-08, the City's Ambulance fund generated an operating surplus even with a significant portion of fire department wages and salaries included.
If we assume that the level of staffing for fire suppression personnel cannot be reduced any further, eliminating the ambulance service will require the City to come up with other sources of revenue to finance the payroll costs for City firefighters that are currently being subsidized by the Ambulance Fund. This fact has been recognized, and reported to the City, by both the City's auditors and the State Comptroller's Office.
Absent a complete lack of understanding on the part of City leaders, it would appear that this move to eliminate the ambulance service is a back door and deceitful attempt to reduce the size of the City's firefighting force.
"We want a new vote taken," said Ireland. "We want to educate the public. Then we want a new vote taken."
In a video interview with Ireland taken at the union's informational picket outside City Hall last week, he said that the city rushed the decision to end ambulance service before anyone had a chance to speak out on it.
Ireland said he is open to negotiations with the city. Of course, that would all take place "behind closed doors."
"I'm more than willing to sit down and talk openly with anyone," he said.
On a side note, our appointment this afternoon was to meet with Ireland at the city fire hall on Evans Street. We had to conduct that meeting outside on the sidewalk. Not a bad situation on a nice day like today. But you may ask why. Well, Ireland apologized and explained that the city manager, Jason Molino, called this morning and told him not to meet with the press inside the fire hall. In fact, Ireland's meeting earlier with Dan Fischer of WBTA and Joanne Beck of the Daily News had to be moved to the WBTA studios, he said.