The Gillespie City Council on Monday night voted unanimously to offer a one-year dispatching services agreement for the Gillespie-Benld Ambulance Service at a cost of $12,000. The measure is subject to approval by the Ambulance Service Board of Trustees later this month. If approved by the Ambulance Board, the council could finalize the agreement as early as next month.
Under terms of the proposed agreement, the city would re-open negotiations with the Ambulance Service in the 10th month to start hammering out a new agreement. If no consensus is reached by the end of the agreement, the city would begin assessing a $1,000 per month fee until the Ambulance Service is able to find a new provider for dispatching services.
The new offer from the city council marks the latest chapter in the ongoing debate over how much the Ambulance Service should be expected to reimburse to the city for dispatching services. Ald. Dona Rauzi, Police Chief Jared DePoppe and City Treasurer Dan Fisher entered into negotiations with the Ambulance Board in March 2020 with a goal of reaching an agreement on a three-year contract.
‘We need to make a decision,” Rauzi advised the council, reporting that the committee had “discussed the possibility” of offering a one-year, $15,000 contract, with provisions to reopen negotiations in the 10th month and charge $1,000 per month once the agreement expired. Mayor John Hicks, however, advocated for a lesser amount.
“Personally, I’d rather see $12,000, and see how the (taxing) district is going to help them,” Hicks said, referencing an Ambulance Service Region tax referendum approved by voters last November. Property tax revenue from that new tax is not expected until 2023.
The most recent counteroffer from the Ambulance Board was for a three-year contract at a cost of $12,000 per year, with provisions to increase the payment to reflect increases in the city’s cost of providing dispatch services. Last month, the council sent back to the Ambulance Board a proposal for a three-year contract calling for $15,000 the first year, $17,500 the second and $25,000 for the third year.
The Ambulance Service relies upon the Police Department to dispatch ambulances for non-emergency “transfer” calls—essentially calls to transport a patient from one hospital to another or calls to transport a nursing home resident to a hospital. For medical emergencies, ambulances are dispatched by the county’s 911 emergency telephone system.
Speaking to the council Monday night before the vote, Ambulance Board member Larry Norville said he had served on the Ambulance Board since its inception.
“We started with virtually nothing,” he recalled. In the early years, the city provided dispatching services free of charge. When the Ambulance Service was in the financial position to do so, it began making annual “donations” to the city to at least partially compensate the city for the expense of dispatching ambulances. Additionally, the Ambulance Service made other contributions, according to Norville, including the purchase of the Police Department’s first computer system for dispatchers.
Josh Ross, also representing the Ambulance Board, noted that the Ambulance Service also paid for repairs to the street in front of the ambulance garage.
During last month’s meeting of the council, City Treasurer Dan Fisher said the city should be compensated for the actual cost of providing dispatching services. Fisher said that based on the number of ambulance calls and the amount of time dispatchers spend on each call, the city’s actual cost for providing the service is in the neighborhood of $25,000 to $26,000 per year.
Both Norville and Ross suggested the city is paying for dispatchers whether or not the police department continues to providing dispatching services for ambulances. Essentially “kicking out” the Ambulance Service would only deprive the city of revenue it’s currently getting.
For the first time Monday night, Norville confirmed the Ambulance Service has identified another party that could provide dispatching services at a lower cost than the City of Gillespie is demanding.
“Do we have someone we could go to for less money? Yes, we do,” said Norville. “We do not want to leave the City of Gillespie for dispatch but if we have to, we will.”
Ross told the council the Ambulance Service is not as flush with cash as previous discussions among city council members seemed to indicate. There is a “nest egg” on which the Ambulance Service earns a modest amount of interest. The annual budget for the not-for-profit organization, however, is virtually break even.
In 2020, Ross said, the Ambulance Service responded to 2,450 calls for which it billed $1.9 million. About $691,000 was “written off” because of Medicare and Medicaid limits, and a small percentage was written off as uncollectible. The organization’s gross for the year was $1.1 million, with expenses totaling $952,000. Ross said the organization’s net for the year was $209,000.
“Next week, we have to take delivery on a new ambulance that cost $242,000,” he said. “Our margin is razor-thin.”
Ross cited some of the Ambulance Service’s recent success stories. A heart attack victim, he reported, was picked up by an ambulance crew, which was able to take an EKG en route to the hospital, which enabled doctors to evaluate the patient before his arrival. Upon arrival, he was taken directly to the heart catheterization lab.
“It was 48 minutes from the time we picked him up to the time he was in the cath lab,” Ross said. He said the service also transported nine people who were “clinical,” meaning they had no pulse or respiration. “Those nine people were ‘dead’ and walked out of the hospital because of the people we have. That doesn’t happen by accident. It’s because of our investment in people. We are more than lights, sirens and driving fast. We are an essential service in the community.”
Both Norville and Ross contended the city would be paying its dispatchers regardless of whether or not the Police Department was dispatching non-emergency ambulance calls. But Ald. Wendy Rolando indicated the city has had to hire additional dispatchers to handle the volume of calls. Ald. Rauzi pointed out the Ambulance Service could not hire its own dispatchers for less money than the city wanted to charge. She said figures provided by Ross earlier in the negotiating process indicated up to 600 hours a year that Gillespie dispatchers spend on ambulance calls.
Police Chief Jared DePoppe said dispatchers handle 150 to 200 ambulance calls per month. Last year dispatchers answered 1,990 ambulance calls.
Noting an agenda item for hiring a full-time dispatcher, Ross pointedly asked if the council would make that hire if the Ambulance Service pulled out to contract with an alternative dispatching service. Rauzi said she could not answer that question since it would be a decision made by the full council.
“We’re only talking about a difference of $3,000,” Rauzi said.
“We need to save money,” Ross said. “We’re not trying to save money for the city, we’re not trying to save money for the Ambulance Service. We’re trying to save money for the community. Those transfer calls are what pays our bills.”
Later in the meeting, following a 10-minute executive session with Chief DePoppe, the council unanimously approved Rauzi’s motion to authorize the Chief of Police to hire a full-time dispatcher.
CANNA THEATER GIFT
While informally agreeing in principle to accept the Assembly of God Church’s proposed gift of the Canna Theater property, the council stopped short of accepting a quitclaim deed for the property, citing pending legal issues. Council members declined to formally accept the gift last month on the advice of City Attorney Dan O’Brien who advised the city could not accept the property until an existing mortgage on the property was released.
Peace Corps Fellow Ethan Fogg, who negotiated the deal with the church, told the council Monday night the church had secured a mortgage release and had prepared a quitclaim deed to transfer the property. Fogg said a title search would be needed and that the church was asking the city to be responsible for the title search cost. Fogg also sought a second action to declare the contents of the building as surplus property to facilitate the removal of the contents.
“We haven’t decided what we want to do with that building yet,” Ald. Rolando objected, noting there were some contents that might be of historical value.
Fogg said the surplus designation would enable the city to transfer property to other departments and would not necessarily signal an intent to auction off the contents. An ice machine, for example, might be transferred to the Street Department. Items of historical value would be handled appropriately, he said. The Museum of Coal Mining, he said, had already requested possession of the Lyric Theater marquee sign stored in the building.
Meanwhile, the building is rapidly deteriorating, according to Fogg, which could endanger some of the contents. “I think it would behoove us to move things out sooner rather than later,” he said.
O’Brien, however, advised moving with greater deliberation. The council quickly accepted the donation of property this spring which led to later legal issues, he said. State law, he indicated, requires treating property donations the same as any other acquisition of real estate by public bodies.
“There’s a whole procedure there,” he said. “I would highly recommend having everything in order before moving forward.” He said there is no urgency at this point since the title search remains to be done and most title companies are “backed up” at this time.
Based on O’Brien’s advice, the council approved Rolando’s motion to direct the City Attorney to prepare a city ordinance for the acquisition of the property.
The general consensus is that the city will have the building demolished once it takes possession, a measure that Ald. Landon Pettit said the city should take into consideration. “I think it would be smart to do more research,” Pettit said. He estimated the cost of demolishing the building and removing debris could cost up to $50,000—more if the job requires asbestos abatement.
The spring property acquisition to which O’Brien referred apparently was a donation of a small parcel from Adam Tallman to be used as a parking area for the City Police Department. Later in the meeting, the council approved a resolution to hire an appraiser to determine the value of the property in order to comply with state requirements associated with the acquisition.
BOAT DOCK GRANT
On a motion by Rauzi, seconded by Pettit, the council voted unanimously to apply for a grant of up to $200,000 from Illinois Department of Natural Resources to build a boat dock at Gillespie Lake. Fogg said the application period was to open on July 15 and would be a fairly simple grant for him to write.
The grant, if awarded, would cover 100 percent of the project’s cost. Since it is a reimbursement grant, however, the city would have to make the initial outlay.
Ald. Frank Barrett, Lake Chair, said the Lake Committee has tentative plans for a 15-slip dock at an estimated cost of $183,000. He said the project would be a source of revenue for the Lake Fund since the city would be able to rent the slips to boat owners.
On a motion by Ald. Pettit, seconded by Ald. Rick Fulton, the council unanimously approved a measure to spend up to $25,000 for rock and up to $25,000 for road oil from the Water Fund to repair streets damaged by the recently completed water infrastructure replacement project. City Treasurer Dan Fisher said the measure has no impact on the city’s regular Motor Fuel Tax street maintenance program scheduled to take place later this summer. While contractors bored under streets to install new water lines, Fisher said there was some damage caused to some streets as a result of the operation. The measure approved Monday night ensures the Water Department incurs the expense of correcting those issues.
NUISANCE HOUSING GRANT
Though no formal action was required, Ald. Rauzi briefly updated the council on plans to seek a state grant to help pay for the demolition of derelict houses in the city. Rauzi said the city is eligible for up to $75,000 to assist with demolition costs. However, to be eligible for the grant, the city must have possession of the properties it intends to raze.
The grant application period for the next round of grants has not been announced, but Rauzi said Fogg has been working to “get everything together” to get the grant.
In the meantime, she said the city should move on completing court actions against nuisance properties in order to take possession and get a court order for demolition before applying for the grant.
“We need to actually have the properties we want to tear down,” she said, “so if we get the grant, we’ll be ready to go ahead and tear them down.”
BLACK DIAMOND DAYS BUILDING
On a motion by Barrett, seconded by Ald. Bill Hayes, the council voted to pay the Black Diamond Days Committee $3,000 for one-half of a metal pole building located behind city hall and used to store materials for the Black Diamond Days festival. Black Diamond Days Committee member Pettit, who voted “present” on the measure, said the committee is moving the festival permanently to Gillespie Lake and is building a building at the lake to store the stage, picnic tables and other materials.
The cost of building the original pole building was shared by the city and the committee, though Pettit said neither he nor the assistant city clerk could find documentation for that fact. The city currently uses the building for storing Christmas decorations and other materials.
In a related matter, the council voted to reimburse the Black Diamond Days Committee $500 from the Municipal Band Fund to put toward the cost of hiring bands for this year’s event. City Treasurer Fisher pointed out last month that a surplus fund balance in the Municipal Band Fund has enabled the city to reimburse organizations for sponsoring public entertainment in the city.
In other action, the council:
- Voted to giver permission to the Black Diamond Days Committee to sponsor a Labor Day Bash at Gillespie Lake.
- Authorized expenditure of about $2,000 to build a new parking area at Big Brick Park.
- Authorized opening a checking account for a communications tower lease at Welfare Park.
- Approved a resolution for a final payment of $3,538.69 to Curry and Associates Engineers for work completed on the water infrastructure project.