A disagreement over whether the city’s contract with its ambulance service needs to be revised is brewing between some Augusta commissioners.
District 5 Commissioner Bill Lockett, the chairman of the administrative committee, sides with Augusta Fire Chief Chris James, who said he is unhappy with the city’s contract with Gold Cross EMS. Last month, James said he had a problem with the vagueness of the contract, including the absence of a requirement for the company to have a minimum number of ambulances in service in Augusta and their internal dispatch center .
Lockett said he is especially unhappy about the $1.3 million the city pays to Gold Cross.
“We most certainly need to look at (the contract),” he said. “It’s lopsided, especially when compared to Columbia County.”
Columbia County pays Gold Cross $500,000 a year. Lockett said he thinks what Augusta pays is “excessive”.
“I have looked at the contracts and we did not get the best deal,” he said.
Lockett also said the contract needs to be written in a way to allow for better oversight.
“If they are trying to hide something, we need to find out what,” he said.
District 6 Commissioner Joe Jackson, the chairman of the public safety committee, said he thinks the contract is fine. The public safety committee would oversee the contract should changes need to be made. It has been renewed automatically every two years since Dec. 31, 2005.
Jackson said it may be time to institute a 911 committee, “for oversight,” after learning the ambulance company’s records are produced by an internal system that is not monitored by any outside committee.
Jackson said he believes the contract issue has been brought up by firefighters “whining over spilled milk,” saying he thought James’ strategic plan, which he presented to the commission when he applied to be fire chief, called for the fire department to eventually take over Augusta’s ambulance service.
In the plan, James said he would increase the number of paramedics employed by the fire department so the department would be able to transport patients, as opposed to just treating them on scene as the EMT first responders can do. The fire department has one ambulance in service that can transport patients and another as backup in case it needs repairs. Other than the fire department’s ambulance, Rescue 1, Gold Cross ambulances are the only vehicles able to transport 911 patients in Augusta unless another company is specifically requested.
Jackson said that means James intends to take over Augusta’s 911 ambulance service. James disagrees.
James said he wanted to be able to transport patients so the fire department could keep its ambulance license. The Georgia Department of Public Heath requires at least one ambulance to be in service to keep the license. James put Rescue 1 into service full time in February.
By using a private provider such as Gold Cross for ambulance services, James said, the city is at risk if it does not hold a license due to not having enough paramedics on hand to run Rescue 1.
“What happens if Gold Cross suddenly closes, or goes out of business?” he said. “The contract has to go out for bid. If we don’t have a license, what do we do for ambulances in the meantime?”
James said his intention was not to take over the ambulance service unless it was deemed advantageous to the citizens.
“It doesn’t matter if (the contract) is held by a private company, as long as we have a contract which is transparent and easily policed,” he said.
The contract was automatically renewed in January for two more years. According to the contract, the commission must let Gold Cross know they are putting the contract out for bid by March of next year, giving them nine months notice. However, if both parties meet and agree on changes, the contract can be amended at any time, said General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie.
Gold Cross owner Bo Pounds said, while he thinks the current contract is working, if commissioners thought it needed to be looked at again, he would be open to having the conversation.
Pounds said it would be a good thing for him also if the contract included a set number of ambulances because he said he has to use some of his general transport (non-emergency) ambulances in Richmond County to cover all the calls. If there was a set number in the contract, he would only be responsible for that amount. Pounds said Gold Cross keeps 11 advanced life support ambulances in service in Richmond County at all times.
Lockett said the contract will go before the commission to be reviewed, but could not say when.