San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1 Board of Commissioners voted to sign an Interlocal Agreement as the first official step toward the merger of fire and emergency medical services on San Juan Island.
“This document is not perfect, it’s gone through … seven iterations or whatever — well that’s the nature of the beast,” Hospital District Chairperson Michael Edwards said. “I think the consensus is that the current rendering that we have … is right for going forward.”
During a special meeting on Nov. 12, three of the five commissioners voted affirmatively to accept the document to unify the administrative services of San Juan County Fire Protection District No. 3 and San Juan Island EMS. The public hospital district currently oversees EMS while the fire district has its own leadership structure. Commissioners Edwards, Mark Schwinge and Rebecca Smith voted to sign the document while Warren Appleton and Anna Lisa Lindstrum dissented.
Once the motion was made, but prior to the vote, each commissioner was allowed a chance to state their decision and explain their reasoning.
Appleton, who has been critical of the agreement all along, opposed its acceptance on the basis of unfinished business and said it is a flawed document. He noted that the public hospital district’s contract with Peace Island Medical Center has a no-compete clause which he believes could cause a problem with the EMS paramedicine program.
Appleton explained that during an Oct. 2 meeting, a PIMC representative said she would run the question of a potential conflict up the chain of command at PeaceHealth. It was noted by PHD Superintendent Pam Hutchins, however, that the representative gave no indication that it would be a problem.
“We have not heard back from them,” Appleton said.
Secondly, Appleton noted that he believes the document itself is flawed. There have been 10 versions of the agreement in five months, according to him. He added that he believes the board could get in legal trouble if it continues.
“Each version becomes less and less specific. … That’s my legal opinion,” Appleton, who on top of being a medical doctor for more than 50 years has also had a law degree for nearly 40 years, said. “We are not ready to sign this agreement today.”
Appleton then read a letter from San Juan County District No. 3 Fire Commissioner Chairperson Bob Jarman. In the letter, Jarman said he believes the merger is the right thing to do, however, the fire commissioners would not be comfortable signing the agreement without the full commitment of the public hospital district board.
“It is right to integrate, but this process has been flawed,” Appleton said. “It’s not the time to vote on this. It’s just not the time.”
Lindstrum agreed with Appleton, noting that though she believes integration is the right move for the community, she said it is irresponsible to saddle the board, the public and staff of the two agencies with this contract without it having unanimous support.
“There are important steps that have been overlooked in the rush to enter integration,” Lindstrum said. “Before signing a contract, we owe it to our community to create and analyze the proposed combined budgets of fire and EMS — I believe for at least three years.”
Smith disagreed. She said that the citizens have voiced their opinions and said they want a merger, the Citizens Advisory Group suggested it be done within two years, that 74 percent of rural communities have combined fire and EMS and that the staff from both agencies are ready to continue toward unification.
“[Staff and the public] have waited long enough,” Smith said. She noted that this is just the first step and could ultimately be a trial period while the two entities work toward integration. The agreement also has clauses for termination.
Schwinge explained that for decades fire and EMS have been separated because of disagreements over power, money, control and autonomy. He said he believes it’s time for the two to reunite which will alleviate the taxpayers’ burden.
“I think the time is now for reconciliation and I think it’s long overdue,” Schwinge said.
Prior to the motion to approve the interlocal agreement, eight people made a public comment, three of the incoming commissioners spoke and a letter penned by Chuck Dalldorf was read.
Dalldorf was the chairperson for the Citizens Advisory Group, which was created by the board in April 2018 to thoroughly research the process and viability of integration. The CAG recommended merging the two entities and Dalldorf’s letter encouraged the board to sign the interlocal agreement.
While some commenters agreed and encouraged the board to sign the agreement, others felt as though it was being rushed, including three of the newly-elected commissioners.
“I do want to thank the board for the effort that they put into putting together something that helps get this merger moving forward. I don’t see this document as the right step at this point,” new commissioner Kyle Loring, who is also an attorney, said. “I see it as a step toward getting to a result that I think we’ll need to reach. … I don’t see the value in this document. I don’t see a $30,000 value for the hospital district.”
As part of the two-year interlocal agreement, the hospital district will pay the fire district $30,000 annually to manage and oversee the administration of EMS, which is currently being provided by the hospital district. The agreement will remain in place until the fire district acquires its advance life support transport license and a voter-approved funding levy is secured. When these two stipulations are completed, the entities will then enter into a new interlocal agreement for EMS to be fully integrated by the fire district.
In the meantime, San Juan Island Fire Chief Norvin Collins will retain leadership over the fire department as a fire district employee while Interim EMS Chief Karl Kuetzing remains an employee of the hospital district.
“I think the ongoing relationship — not only between the two chiefs but also between the two boards — my way of looking at it, is very symbiotic and it’s very cost-effective,” Edwards said. “We’re going to save money in the deal. If you look at the talent that Fire District 3 offers, it’s outstanding — starting with the board.”
Collins will also assume the role of EMS Oversight Administrator and will, “work to facilitate the potential transfer of EMS Services to the fire district.”
The agreement goes into effect on the date the last signature is added.
“The sooner that we can integrate Fire District 3 and San Juan Island EMS, the closer we come to being able to establish a countywide regional fire authority,” Edwards said. “To me, that is the top of the heap. It’s not discussed all that often, but it’s a blessing in so, so many ways in terms of integrating the fire and rescue services and EMS services countywide.”