City Ink: Hold on as commissioners gear up for challenge

As Fire Chief Chris James and Augusta commissioners gear up to challenge Gold Cross Emergency Medical Services for the right to take over the ambulance service in Richmond County, taxpayers should hold on to their pocketbooks.


Remember when the city took over the misdemeanor probation services last year? While nobody expected the new probation office to make as much money as Sentinel, the private probation service they fired, nobody expected it to be another big drain on taxpayers. But revenues last year were so far below estimates, the office had to be propped up with cash transfusions and another $750,000 has been budgeted to fund the office next year.

So can you imagine how much it will cost taxpayers for the city to provide ambulance service?

At least $10 million in startup costs. Personnel costs to staff one ambulance run $350,000 to $450,000 a year, which includes salaries, workers comp and liability insurance.

Augusta would need a minimum of 10 ambulances. The costs of stocking an ambulance include $20,000 for a stretcher, $25,000 for a cardiac monitor and $18,000 for a Lucas CPR device.

Each ambulance also must have a $3,000 to $5,000 wireless network and a $5,000 laptop. Drugs and medications run from $6,500 to $8,000 per ambulance.

Annual bio-maintenance is required on all equipment in the ambulance.

Stretcher bio-maintenance is required twice a year.

The ambulance billing department for Richmond County would need eight to 10 people with salaries of $35,000 to $45,000.

And then they would have to hire mechanics to service the ambulances.

James and company haven’t even taken over the ambulance service, but it’s already costing taxpayers more money in the form of a 0.5 mill increase in the fire service district next year.

And that’s how you grow government. The why is another story and it’s no fairytale.

So if residents are complaining to commissioners about Gold Cross’ new charges, which they knew would come when they nixed the company’s $1.1 million subsidy, can you imagine the calls they’ll get when they keep raising prices and adding fees to pay for the new ambulance service?

Unless, of course, they plan to run it like public transit, which will cost Augusta taxpayers at least $4 million next year.

Talk about a subsidy. There’s one for you.

What Did Shakespeare Say About Lawyers?: Meanwhile, James is working behind the scenes to get senior staff attorney Jody Smitherman assigned to his department full-time, reportedly in anticipation of increased legal needs arising from pursuing the zone designation. She would also be involved in developing a billing and collection system, and handling the lawsuits against the ambulance service.

Smitherman represented the city in its failed court challenge to wrest the zone designation from Gold Cross. The Georgia Court of Appeals threw the case out in June on a technicality.

Law department General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie would fill Smitherman’s position and another vacancy on his staff, which has grown from two employees in 2007 to 12. Another former staff attorney, Kayla Cooper, now works full-time for the utilities department.

So is this just another way to grow the law department too?

The utilities department has a lawyer.

The fire department gets a lawyer and silently, under the noses of taxpayers, they’re going to increase the number of lawyers to eight to do what former city attorney Jim Wall and another attorney in his office did by themselves.

And everybody knows what happens when you have more lawyers. Even the simple things get 10 times more complex, take five times longer to get done and cost a whole lot more.

Weighing Heavily on Their Minds: In yet another anti-private business move, the fire department will no longer help Gold Cross lift obese patients unless it’s a life or death emergency, which will force Gold Cross to send an additional crew, thereby increasing the company’s costs that will be passed along to patients. You might call that a “fat tax,” but that wouldn’t be politically correct.

The word “obese” is OK, but the word “fat” is not. Go figure.

Anyway, the commission’s decision to try to run Gold Cross out of business in Richmond County by cutting their subsidy and refusing to help lift obese patients seems pennywise and pound foolish.

Every Budget Needs a Little Smoke and Mirrors: During the 2018 proposed budget presentation last week, the subject of using the money from vacant but fully funded positions in the sheriff’s department for deputy pay raises came up.

There are 90 such positions in the sheriff’s department, so if they took 60 of those and the average $35,000-a-year starting salaries, it would free up $2.1 million, which still gives the sheriff 30 positions to fill.

He traditionally averages more than 50 vacancies a year anyway.

I don’t understand high governmental finance, but if the city has 400 vacant and funded positions, as City Administrator Janice Jackson said, and they conservatively average $23,000 a year, including benefits, that’s actually $9.2 million that’s floating around somewhere.

Snap, Crackle, Pop: I was afraid when Commissioner Bill Fennoy took a knee during the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance before Tuesday’s commission meeting that he might not be able to get back up because he’s not as nimble as he was when he decked Woody Merry before a Coliseum Authority meeting almost 10 years ago. So the question Tuesday became “Does he have enough friends on the commission to help him get back in his seat?”

I’m not too sure Gold Cross would help and the fire department is out of that business now.

Maybe if all of the highly-paid deputies who were there to hear whether the raises the sheriff requested were in next year’s budget thought Fennoy was going to vote for the raises, they would have helped him back up. But since he was kneeling to protest police brutality, probably not.

Why? I Bet Even a Bad Investigator Could Find Out: The lawyer for one of the two city employees State Court Chief Judge David Watkins fired in July is asking the city to settle the claims or face an administrative charge of racial discrimination with the EEOC and in federal court.

Atlanta attorney A. Lee Parks contends in a letter to the city on behalf of former Richmond County State Court Administrator Jan Hardy, a 38-year employee, whom Watkins fired in July, along with Chief Probation Officer Marie Boulton, that Hardy did not deserve to be fired, and has suffered extreme mental and emotional damages from being the victim of race discrimination and adverse publicity due to her sudden termination.

Parks contends Watkins directed a city staff attorney to prepare a severance agreement before he became chief judge without any notice to Hardy about unsatisfactory work performance and an opportunity to improve.

In a meeting with Hardy, Watkins “offered a pretexual ‘justification’ for her removal. He said he ‘had no use for ( Hardy) and he was ‘going in a different direction.’

“That ‘different direction’ was clearly race driven,” Parks states in the letter.

“He replaced Ms. Hardy with a substantially younger, far less experienced African-American employee (Niya S. Barnes), who was then serving as his administrative assistant before he became chief judge.”

Watkins’ decision to remove Hardy has had a devastating impact on her economic and mental condition, Parks states.

She was only two-and-a-half years away from full retirement and while she found a position as deputy clerk in Magistrate Court, she lost $43,000 a year in salary alone. The pay cut will likely negatively impact her pension and impede her ability to retire.

Should the case move forward, Hardy will seek substantial damages, including back pay, reinstatement, front pay in lieu of reinstatement, compensatory damages and attorney fees.



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