Schmoke's plan to collect fees for calling ambulances opposed Hiring private firm would be waste, council says

May 06, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Fed up with city residents who refuse to pay the required fee for calling an ambulance, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants to spend more than $600,000 to hire a private company to track down the scofflaws.

But City Council members are fighting the mayor, saying that he is wasting money and is secretly trying to turn over ambulance service to private management.

The Board of Estimates, which is controlled by the mayor, is expected to vote today on whether to hire the private company to collect fees.

Eastern Baltimore Councilwoman Lois Garey said she is rounding up support to pressure the mayor to abandon the deal.

Garey persuaded 10 other council members Monday to back a resolution calling for the mayor to vote against hiring the fee collection agency.

She questioned how Rural/Metro Corp. could get people to pay.

"I think this is a foot in the door to privatizing the ambulance service," Garey said.

Last year, the mayor briefly considered hiring a private company to transport and provide quick medical assistance to patients. His aim was to find a company that would do it for less than the $8 million the city spends to do it each year.

But union and council members protested, saying, among other things, that city residents would be in danger if the ambulance service is turned over to a private company because its employees would have the option to strike. The city's ambulance service is run by unionized employees who are forbidden to strike.

The mayor said that he is not trying to covertly privatize the ambulance service. He said his latest effort is aimed at collecting fees from scofflaws to bring more money into the city.

The city collects about $2.4 million in ambulance fees from city residents. City employees are used to find the residents at a cost of about $325,000 a year.

Under the mayor's proposed deal, Rural/Metro Corp. would be paid 17.5 percent of what the company collects. The company's officials said that it can net the city about $3.5 million a year. If the company collects that amount, its take would be $616,612.

The rest of the money would go back into the Fire Department budget, as it does now.

The company will only be allowed to send residents three letters asking for payment, as the city does now.

The mayor said that he is putting that restriction in the contract with Rural/Metro because he doesn't want residents to be harassed. Not all residents are required to pay the ambulance fees. Low-income residents can have the fee waived.

Residents have been paying ambulance fees since 1989, when the City Council passed a law to raise more money to pay for two more ambulances.

"We want to be aggressive with the people who can pay us, who should pay us, but don't," the mayor said.

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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