Bishop City Council balked when it came time to terminate the Bishop Police Department (BPD) dispatch service for Symons Ambulance. Council considered the action on Dec. 9 in light of Symons’ outstanding debt of over $13,000 to the City for dispatch service provided since February of this year.
According to City Administrator Keith Caldwell, BPD Chief Chris Carter had presented Council with “a long list of correspondences” between the Chief and Symons Ambulance concerning a renewal of the dispatch service contract. Caldwell characterized both Symons Ambulance founder Judd Symons, and President and CEO Jeff Grange, as “unresponsive.”
The dispatch service contract between the City and Symons expired in July of this year. Since then, BPD has continued to provide dispatch service while Chief Carter attempted contract negotiations with Symons.
In October, Symons requested the City reduce its rate for dispatch service from $20 per call to a flat rate of $100 per month, or $1,200 a year. City Administrator Caldwell estimated that BPD currently fields about 1,000 calls a month, and that Symons pays about $20,000 a year for dispatch service.
Symons had requested the reduction to dispatch service rates because of alleged financial difficulties stemming from diminishing Medi-Care/Med-Cal reimbursement rates, changes to private insurance, and the state of the overall economy. Yet in a 2012 Inc.com profile, Symons Ambulance made #833 of the 5,000 fastest growing companies in the nation. The site listed Symons’ revenue in 2009 at $605,256, and $3.9 million in 2012, 538% growth.
Chief Carter requested that the larger Symons Ambulance, not just the Bishop operation, provide Profit and Loss Statements to prove its alleged financial difficulties. Symons Ambulance failed to respond to the request. Repeated requests went unfulfilled, he said.
“We all know [Symons founder] Mr. [Judd] Symons provides an absolutely top-notch, essential service to the City of Bishop,” said Mayor Laura Smith; “he hires great, professional personnel. But he’s not the greatest communicator.”
However, Mayor Smith argued that ceasing to provide ambulance dispatch through the BPD would be of greater disservice to the people of Bishop than continuing to attempt to make contact with Judd Symons. Smith noted that BPD dispatch stays on the line during a call, and continues to relay information to the ambulance as it’s en route to a scene, as well as to any police officers and fire crews that might precede or follow the ambulance. “It’s valuable to the people who are calling to have that dispatcher stay on and receive more information,” Smith said.
Were BPD to terminate its dispatch service, emergency calls would go directly to Symons, which uses a telephone rather than radio-based dispatch system. This means that police and other responsive agencies would not be able to listen to a call in progress, County Administrator Caldwell explained. Symons Ambulance is also not set up to document the entire call, he said.
Mayor Smith also argued that “Dispatch doesn’t cost the City anything. These are dispatchers who are already there.” She suggested the City should simply provide free dispatch service to Symons, as it has in years prior to the July 2012 contract. “It’s a very small subsidy, to receive the [ambulance] service we do,” she said.
Mayor Pro Tem Pat Gardner agreed that Symons provides a skilled and expert ambulance service to Bishop, but could not agree with Mayor Smith’s urge to continue attempting negotiation with Symons. “[Judd Symons] is still in default of a contract he signed that specified how he could get out of that contract in great detail,” Gardner said.
In addition, she argued that the Council couldn’t be sure Symons even needed free dispatch service, considering the City has yet to see a Profit and Loss Statement. “We’re doing this very emotionally, because we want to see ambulance services continue,” Gardner said, “but [by doing so] we’re saying, ‘it’s okay not to pay and we’ll figure something out in the long run, because we don’t feel good about this.’ That’s not a good way to do business.”
Councilmember David Stottlemyre tried to find a middle ground. “I think we can be a little sympathetic,” he said. He suggested that Symons’ $13,000 debt be paid by the end of the Fiscal Year in June. “In addition, a flat fee of $100 a month would be something [Judd] could do,” he said.
Mayor Smith reported that Judd Symons had made a partial payment toward the $13,000 owed to the City on the Friday prior to the Council meeting.
Stottlemyre also noted that Inland Counties Emergency Medical Agency (ICEMA) would be issuing a new request for proposals for Inyo County ambulance service in June. “Let’s make it work, at least until that time, because [Judd] may not have the winning bid,” Stottlemyre said.
County Administrator Caldwell expressed frustration with the Council continuing to kick the can down the road. “Mr. Symons is aware that this meeting is happening, and has not come here to represent himself,” Caldwell said. “I’m concerned about setting a precedent for allowing a contract to lapse.”
“I’m not in favor of drawing a new contract with Symons,” Councilmember Keith Glidewell agreed. “I think we’re making the same mistake again.”
Nevertheless, Glidewell also expressed concern about a change to dispatch, should BPD terminate its service.
Council ultimately concluded with direction to staff to request another meeting with Judd Symons, request a payment schedule for the $13,000, and move forward with discussions on a new contract and ways for the City and Symons Ambulance to work together. For the time being, “I want to stick with something we know works,” Councilmember David Stottlemyre said. “We need to assure our residents that they’re going to be taken care of.”