Paramedics with Lewis County Medic One have voiced their opposition to the leadership of Operations Chief Grant Wiltbank in a unanimously-supported vote of no confidence and are calling for a complete overhaul of how the agency is managed.
Detailed in a letter dated Oct. 28 and made public during the meetings of local fire commissioners on Thursday, the paramedics, represented by IAFF Local 4863, stated they are concerned Medic One is not responding adequately to increasing gaps between revenues and expenditures and, while they appreciate Wiltbank's continued advocacy for a strong EMS system in South Lewis County, they feel his ability to communicate and foster cooperation has been insufficient.
"The organization is facing serious budgetary issues and the possibility of losing Lewis County Fire District 5," said the letter, referencing recent discussions between Medic One and District 5, based in Napavine, in which District 5 has expressed their desire to look elsewhere for ambulance services rather than contracting with Medic One. "We have been able to provide this level of service because our districts have chosen to work together and we cannot function with one removed."
Medic One currently operates based on an interlocal agreement between fire districts in Toledo, Winlock, Vader and Ryderwood, who essentially own the agency, and has offered contracted services to fire districts in Napavine, Salkum and Onalaska.
The original intent, according to Medic One officials, was for the agency to operate in a revenue-neutral capacity, earning the funding it needed from billing patients and their insurance. But recent years have seen increases in medical expenses and decreases in reimbursement rates from care providers, leading to member districts being asked to make direct contributions to Medic One's operations, as well as increases in the rates charged to its contract districts.
In their letter, paramedics acknowledged the increasing difficultly for ambulance agencies to operate within a revenue-neutral business model, but said Medic One has failed to explore enough options to find the funding it needs.
"We need leadership that can look for alternative funding resources, Safer grants and other federal funding, and someone that will communicate effectively with all members of our service area," the letter continued, stating the union will remain open to discussing the terms of their current contract contingent upon "a change of leadership within this organization."
When asked Thursday for his reaction to the union's letter, Wiltbank said he felt disappointed with how the paramedics were characterizing the agency's current challenges, stating he felt they had not been able to offer specific examples of their concerns and a detailed review of his performance would paint a very different picture.
"I disagree with their interpretation and position," he said, stating, in regard to his levels of communication, the nature of his job has requires him to routinely interact with fellow district leaders and keep them in the know so the Interlocal Board may make informed decisions. "Everything we've done in the interlocal I've strived to make a matter of consensus."
He added, in regard to his relationship with District 5, he can point to an interaction during an Oct. 21 meeting of the Interlocal Board in which he and District 5 Commissioner Lyle Hojem disagreed on how soon District 5 should propose an EMS levy, with Hojem stating Wiltbank should not advise he and fellow commissioners how to run their district. Wiltbank said he felt this was not an interaction that left District 5 alienated, but rather a frank discussion about what it was going to take to continue funding local ambulance services.
Also critical of the union's letter has been Commissioner Randy Pennington of Lewis County Fire District 15, in Winlock, who told his board on Thursday he felt the letter was unfairly scapegoating Wiltbank for District 5's potential departure, and that the rhetoric of the letter goes too far in placing blame on Wiltbank.
"I was somewhat distressed with the letter we received," stated Pennington. "There has never been an issue officially raised by the bargaining unit until District 5 threatened to pull out."
Pennington noted he has found himself disagreeing with Wintbank's management of Medic One on multiple occasions but, if the issues outlined in the union's letter are as systemic and ongoing as they have been described, their concerns should have been raised long beforehand.
"If I was a citizen, this just looks like they're going to throw someone under the bus to get something else that they want, and I don't like that," he said.
However, apart from District 5's potential departure and the union's displeasure with Wiltbank, Pennington said he remains concerned about the expected financial shortfall Medic One is projected to encounter next year, and the fact that Wiltbank's office has yet to provide a budget proposal that does not include approving a deficit.
Pennington said, of the budgets he has been provided with so far, which include scenarios where District 5 remains under a revised contract, District 5 leaves, or all of the northern districts leave and only three paramedics remain, they all contain an end-of-year deficit of around $90,000, which he said is entirely unacceptable, even as a proposal.
"I will not sign a budget for the interlocal that is a negative budget," he said.
In light of Medic One's uncertain ability to continue if District 5 pulls out, as well as budgetary concerns, Pennington and his district will likely provide notice to Medic One that they are looking at other ambulance service options, similar to District 5's current efforts.
"We owe it to our constituents," he said, stating his district would be "foolish" to not examine their options if better alternatives exist, regardless of the status of Medic One.
Other Districts to discuss the matter included Cowlitz-Lewis Fire District 20, in Vader and Ryderwood, who said they expect to hear from fellow officials during the next regular meeting of the interlocal board on Tuesday before choosing a course of action, while Lewis County Fire District 2, based in Toledo, had not broached the matter during their agenda.
A spokesperson for District 5 said, while their future involvement in Medic One was discussed Thursday night, they have yet to commit to either staying with or leaving the interlocal, and expect to learn more during a meeting of interlocal board members and representative of contract districts tomorrow at 3 p.m. at District 5 headquarters.