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Greenbank blogger criticizes Whidbey EMS levy

A Greenbank attorney is waging a one-man battle against a renewal of a popular levy that funds ambulances and other emergency medical services on Whidbey Island.

The proposition is on the ballot that residents should have already received in the mail for the Aug. 7 primary. The measure would renew the current property-tax levy of 50 cents per $1,000 for another six years.

EMS levies have garnered a high degree of voter support in past years and this year’s measure only needs a simple majority of votes to pass because of a law change. The hospital’s website, www.whidbeygen.org, has a link to voluminous information about the levy and the work the EMS department does.

While passage seems nearly certain, a self-styled investigative reporter who writes a blog critical of Whidbey General Hospital has tried to throw a wrench in the works, though his criticisms only show one side of the picture.

Rob Born, an attorney and writer of the Whidbey General Reformers blog, questions the EMS department’s increasing budget, the salaries and especially the overtime pay that paramedics and emergency medical technicians earn. He obtained salary information for 2011 which he claims “paints a far worse picture of an out-of-control payroll.”

On the other hand, paramedic Robert May — speaking for himself — claimed that Born’s comments were unfair and biased. He said paramedics on Whidbey earn average wages compared to other jurisdictions.

Hospital Commissioner Ron Wallin addressed the issue at the Clinton voters forum last week and claimed that there are misunderstandings about how overtime works.

Wallin told a crowd at the Clinton Progressive Hall that it’s difficult to cover “such a long island,” and two ambulances are based on South Whidbey, one in Coupeville and three in Oak Harbor.

“We average 7,000 calls a year,” Wallin said, emphasizing he was speaking for himself, not as an elected commissioner. “It’s just astronomical, but our EMS system is top of the line. Wherever you want to go there’s an ambulance there to help you.” If an ambulance from South Whidbey heads toward an Everett hospital, another one is moved south as a backup, for example.

Yet as Born points out, the ambulance crews are making a lot of money. The top 10 paramedics were paid from $114,911 to $150,443 last year. The top nine EMTs earned from $61,252 to $114,392. Much of the pay comes from overtime.

“Our paramedics and EMTs are top-notch and highly experienced, and fully deserve a generous deal, but not a life of luxury,” he wrote.

Roger Meyers, the director of Emergency Medical Services, a department of Whidbey General Hospital, explained that overtime pay is “built-in” because the union contract specifies a 24-hour work shift; he said a 24-hour shift is the norm. Under federal law, any work beyond an 8-hour day is overtime, paid at time and a half.

“It looks like a lot of overtime on paper, but it’s because they get 16 hours of overtime a shift,” he said.

May explained that the paramedics’ base wages are set low to make up for the overtime; it balances out to be an average wage.

Meyers said the employees with the highest pay were those who worked extra shifts. A full-time paramedic or EMT has to work eight shifts a month, though most work 10.

Meyers said the hospital and the union do salary studies prior to each negotiations and the conclusion is that the salaries are “right in the ballpark” with other agencies.

While the individual employees earn more by working more shifts, Meyers said it doesn’t affect his bottom line. If his employees weren’t willing to work those shifts, he would have to bring in people from outside the county to cover the shifts. It would cost the same amount in salaries whether one person or several are covering the shifts.

On the other hand, Born points out that salaries and benefits increased dramatically after voters overwhelmingly passed a levy to increase the amount collected to 50 cents per $1,000, which is the most allowed under law. He reported that wages and benefits ballooned 57 percent from $3.02 million in 2006 to over $4.7 million this year.

Yet hospital officials point out that the increase in wages was an obvious result of the levy passage and was essentially the fulfillment of a campaign promise. The levy increase helped pay for new ambulance quarters and more ambulances; more staff and more shifts were therefore required.

Born argues that the levy rate is too high, especially compared to other jurisdictions. Compared to Island County’s rate of 0.50, King County has a 0.30 rate and Skagit’s is set at 0.25, though officials are asking voters for a substantial increase.

Of the 179 EMS tax levy districts within the state, the average levy in 2011 is 0.36, the median levy throughout the state is 0.427 and the most frequently encountered levy rate is 0.50, according to a levy analysis done for the Skagit County EMS.

“EMS officials are pressuring us by calling this an ‘all-or-nothing’ decision,” Born wrote. “By your ‘no’ vote, you can tell them to fix their runaway personnel budget‚ and only then come back with a justifiable and transparent levy proposal.”

Meyers, on the other hand, said he’s cautiously optimistic that the community will once again support the continuation of the levy to keep the ambulances on the road.

“We’ve been very humbled by all the support we’ve received,” he said. “I just hope we can continue providing great service in the future.”

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