Costa Mesa council says no to public-private ambulance plan

Bypassing a recommendation by Fire Chief Dan Stefano and city staff for a new public-private model, the Costa Mesa City Council voted early Wednesday in favor of maintaining the city's ambulance transportation service as is.

The 3-2 decision was reached just after 1 a.m. on the tail end of a meeting lasting more than seven hours.

Stefano had recommended a system that would assign ambulance transport to the Fire Department for patients with serious injuries and to an unspecified private company for non-life-threatening cases.

Such a split service, according to a city consultant, was experimental and likely would have been a first in California.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, along with Mayor Steve Mensinger and Councilman Gary Monahan, argued for maintaining the status quo, in which a Fire Department truck responds to all emergency calls alongside one of the city's six ambulances with paramedics onboard and a private ambulance operated by Care Ambulance Service, a city contractor since 2008.

Under that model, all patients are taken to a hospital by Care; the city's recently purchased ambulance fleet is not used for patient transport. For patients whose condition is more critical, city paramedic personnel go in a Care ambulance for the hospital trip, with a city ambulance in tow to give responders a ride back to the fire station.

Monahan said Costa Mesa's paramedics will continue to be the first responders on emergency calls. He said the system "really isn't broken."

"We have a plan," Righeimer said. "It works fine. I want to keep it."

Righeimer said the recommended option would amount to an undue expansion of government and the hiring of more public employees whose pensions are costly for taxpayers.

"Government does not need to be getting any bigger," he said. "Government needs to be getting smaller."

Councilwomen Sandy Genis and Katrina Foley dissented.

Foley was critical of Righeimer's reasoning, calling his vote against the recommendation "predictable."

"This was never about the care for the community of Costa Mesa," she said. "It's always about a narrow lens which relates to you don't want to hire one more person in the city who might get a pension. That is just irresponsible."

Genis called the current system "horribly inefficient" and noted how the recommended option could have boosted city coffers by as much as $2.5 million annually — about $1.8 million more per year than the city receives now in ambulance cost recovery.

Mensinger said the city should continue looking at options, particularly its cost-recovery models, to see if it can acquire more funds.

"We are not going to rush this decision tonight," he said.

Foley quickly retorted: "Three years is not enough?"

In 2013, the council agreed to a 17-point plan that restructured the Fire Department. It came two years after a decision not to disband the department and outsource fire services to the Orange County Fire Authority.

In a statement sent to the Daily Pilot on Wednesday afternoon, Capt. Rob Gagne, president of the department's firefighters union, said his association is disappointed with the final outcome.

"The men and women of the Costa Mesa Firefighters Assn. have been nothing but patient and compliant in working with city staff during this reorganizational process the past three years," according to the statement. "To have politics get in the way of progress — after the citizens have purchased six ambulances with the intent of transporting, after the 17-point reorganization plan is nearly completed and after the entire city staff, including the CEO, supported and recommended a cost-recovery option — it is disheartening to witness the council majority's inability to move forward."

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