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Council scraps Lakeview EMS integration contract

A public hearing preceding Hudson Common Council's vote on the future of St. Croix EMS drew a crowd that packed the council chambers and multiple overflow rooms Monday, June 19. Council ultimately voted against merging St. Croix EMS with Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia. 1 / 4
Hudson Mayor Rich O'Connor joined Lakeview EMS Director Jon Muller and other city officials at Christian Community Homes to discuss a proposed merger of St. Croix EMS with HealthPartners and answer community members' questions Tuesday, June 13. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia.2 / 4
Community members gathered in turqoius "SAVE SCEMS" shirts in front of the Hudson Fire Department Tuesday, June 13 in opposition of a proposal that would merge St. Croix EMS with HealthPartners. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia.3 / 4
Chris and Mike Bahneman joined a group of Hudson-area community members to rally against the St. Croix EMS-HealthPartners merger Tuesday, June 13. Mike Bahneman worked as an emergency medical technician with St. Croix EMS for more than 30 years while his wife, Chris, now serves on the dive team. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia.4 / 4

St. Croix EMS will remain intact following a Hudson Common Council vote to drop a proposed contract in which Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater would have taken over the community's emergency services.

The plan would have replaced about four emergency medical technicians from the more than 20-person St. Croix EMS crew with the Lakeview crew under the condition that they obtain paramedic licensing to adhere to Lakeview's two-paramedic model.

Instead, common council members voted to establish a committee to evaluate the city's EMS funding options and develop a more sustainable model moving forward.

Cheers and applause broke out in the packed council chambers and multiple overflow spaces following the council's final decision.

The vote came after nearly three hours of public comment, most of which criticized the proposed merger with Lakeview.

Among opponents' concerns over the integration was a loss of local control by privatizing the community's emergency services.

"I think selling the EMS service and giving up complete local control is a terrible mistake. If the system is unsustainable, let's fix it," Hudson resident Bill Campbell said during public comments. "...If we trade our EMS services to HealthPartners for a pocket full of beans, we have no control whatsoever. We have no choice in altering services."

Another said emergency care is best provided by EMS staff who live in the Hudson community.

Hudson resident Emily Smith told the council of instances in which EMS staff offered extra assistance to the community like helping search for missing children or re-homing pets whose owners were too sick to take care of them.

"I remember them helping the fire department find children who were missing," Smith told council members. "I remember them taking care of an extremely mentally ill man that lived in my neighborhood, and every time they cared for him, they showed him respect, care and compassion that I have never witnessed before."

But supporters of the contract say merging with Lakeview may be the only financially secure option in the future.

"We live in a world that's changing daily," said Hudson resident Dick Pierson. "What's going to happen in the next five or ten years? … Looking down the road is what I'm concerned about. We all know taxes here in Hudson are very, very high; that's a given: you've got the school district, the county and a number of other issues."

Former State Assembly candidate Paul Berning agreed, citing concerns over a "financial crisis" for the city in the future.

"I think we can all agree that, because of bureaucracy, the problems that have gone on and on in St. Croix EMS as far as an organizational standpoint, not an employee standpoint, is one of the reasons we're looking at integrating with Lakeview," he said.  

Berning also attended a June 13 event at Christian Care Homes where Mayor Rich O'Connor discussed the plan with community members and answered questions.

At the meeting, O'Connor outlined a memo from city administration listing several options for EMS funding.   

Among them was a model St. Croix EMS recommended in April that would stagger the hiring of five new paramedics over five years, and raise per-capita municipal contributions to $19.25 in 2018, with a $2 increase each year.

The memo also outlined the impact of the current EMS funding, a formula that would disclude North Hudson and the town of Hudson from the service area, and the integration with HealthPartners.

O'Connor said the HealthPartners integration was the only proposal that would leave the city with sufficient funding for expenses such as new police equipment or increases in other departments.

Under the city's maximum tax levy of $5.25 per $1,000 of home valuation, the current St. Croix EMS funding formula would leave $44,908 available once factors including contractual increases for police and Wisconsin Retirement System payments are deducted.

The model St. Croix EMS proposed would leave $13,200, while the merger would leave $308,325, officials said.

O'Connor said Hudson uses an average $175,000 in other expenses, and that the St. Croix EMS proposal would leave about $135,000 in expenses unfunded.

"And that means budget cuts," he said. "Or it means that we have to go beyond the $5.25 mill rate to cover the rest of the expense," which could have repercussions from state-imposed tax levy caps.

Supporters of the current EMS model rallied at the Fire Department the same night, donning turquois "Save SCEMS" shirts.

Mike Bahneman was one of three organizers for the event. A third-generation emergency medical technician with St. Croix EMS, Bahneman recently retired after 30 years.

Bahneman said at the June 13 event that Lakeview's EMS model, known as dynamic deployment, could shift ambulance services too far away from Hudson citizens. He also said it could deplete some of the community's resources and equipment like the dive team or the paramedic chase vehicle, which helps clear a path in traffic for ambulances.

The June 19 decision to maintain St. Croix EMS was a relief for Bahneman, who also spoke during public comments.

"The citizens of Hudson wanted it, plain and simple," he said. "I am 100 percent sure we'll be able to save St. Croix EMS by looking at new models. It ran for so many years without having any attention to it, and it needed it. So, now we'll clean it up and it will work just fine."

Had the council voted in favor of the merger, more than 20 EMT jobs could have been slated for the chopping block.