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TOWER—City officials here are expressing frustration over the willingness of the editor and a regular contributor of a tiny weekly newspaper in the city to continue to spread misinformation and …
TOWER—City officials here are expressing frustration over the willingness of the editor and a regular contributor of a tiny weekly newspaper in the city to continue to spread misinformation and false claims to readers. The latest case was an astonishing front page story that accused Dena Suihkonen, the city’s ambulance director of “fraud” and of “blackmailing” the city to leverage the council’s approval of a union contract for her position.
It further accused the director of overseeing a financial loss for the Tower Area Ambulance Service of $200,000.
The claims, which city officials say bear little relationship to fact, appeared on the front page of the Jan. 20, 2023 edition of the Tower News, a paper with fewer than 400 regular subscribers that appears to be seeking attention through its hyperbolic reporting. That includes opinionated “news” stories written by contributor Steve Altenburg, who was fired in 2020 from his position as the city’s ambulance director and fire chief. Altenburg, whose byline appears with the latest broadside against his successor, has spent the past three years leveling a variety of accusations against the city and individuals he blames for his dismissal, without apparent fact-checking by his purported editor, Terry Carlson.
Altenburg’s latest claim of fraud against the ambulance director is baseless, say city officials. “There has not been any fraud that has taken place when it comes to pay or the reporting of hours,” said Mayor David Setterberg. “The hours were worked, time cards were submitted and paid accordingly.”
If there’s an issue, it’s over the number of hours that were originally authorized by the city council when Suihkonen was named as Altenburg’s successor in June of 2020. According to the job description, the hours were supposed to be limited to a combined 40 hours for both EMT and director duties over a biweekly pay period. The position paid $22 per hour for administrative duties and $25 an hour when she was performing as an EMT. That would have put her annual combined pay at just under $24,000 a year.
That’s nearly half of what the city had been paying for the same duties under Altenburg and his two assistants, and appeared to continue a pattern of undervaluing Suihkonen’s work for the service.
Altenburg, in 2019, was paid a salary of $23,700 as director and took home an additional $9,771 for EMT time, for a total ambulance service compensation of $33,471. At the same time, the city paid for two assistant directors at a combined cost of $9,600, which pushed the total compensation for the service’s administration and Altenburg’s EMT time to over $43,000 a year.
Suihkonen, who was hired as an hourly employee rather than salaried, was expected to do the service’s administrative work without any assistants, and respond to emergency calls, for far less than the previous director.
The hours authorized proved to be unrealistic, particularly as the ambulance service was still scrambling to adjust to the impacts of the COVID pandemic and the implementation of new safety protocols. Without any assistants, all that work fell on Suihkonen and the hours added up.
Former city clerk-treasurer Victoria Ranua said Suihkonen provided her with detailed records of her work time, showing what kind of administrative work she was doing throughout the workday. “I never had any concerns about her hours,” said Ranua. “Her timecards detailed her activities. I never received anything from Altenburg when he was director. I never knew what he was doing.”
Based on her reported hours, Suihkonen was paid $45,217 for administrative work in 2021 and $42,906 this past year. Like Altenburg, she was also paid separately for her EMT time. That increased the combined cost of her administrative duties and EMT response to $52,543 in 2021 and $50,145 in 2022. City contributions for holiday and vacation pay added almost $6,000 to her wages in 2021 and about $850 last year.
In the past, the city had paid salaries for the administrative work totaling $33,600, but never had any record of how many hours any of the employees actually worked and pay rates were set on a largely arbitrary basis. That was one reason that Ranua had pushed to transition the position to hourly, to help the city better understand the actual time involved.
The change proved illuminating. In addition to dealing with COVID, Suihkonen notes that the city began work to create a first-ever business plan for the service, something Altenburg had resisted, which consumed additional administrative hours. The state’s Emergency Medical Services Regulatory Board (EMSRB) also did a review of the service in 2021, for which Suihkonen had to compile data and meet regularly with EMSRB staff. “And I spent a lot of time trying to fix all the things that were wrong as a result of the previous director,” said Suihkonen. She also oversaw the transition to a fulltime on-call roster, something required by state law that the service had failed to do in the past. She also took on some payroll duties that had been done by the city clerk-treasurer before her tenure.
In the end, all of her time sheets were reviewed by the clerk-treasurer and approved by the city council, contrary to Altenburg’s charge that the extra pay was “unapproved.” Suihkonen’s job description did allow paying overtime with prior approval, which certainly suggests a recognition that her hours could exceed 40 hours per biweekly pay period.
As has been the pattern of both Altenburg and Carlson, neither sought any clarification from Suihkonen nor offered her an opportunity to respond before splashing Altenburg’s accusations across the front page of the Tower News. Nor did they run Altenburg’s concerns past city officials.
“I hate to use the term, but it’s just ‘fake news,’” said Tower Clerk-Treasurer Michael Schultz.
Ambulance losses overstated
City officials say they’re concerned about more than Altenburg’s false charges of fraud. His story also claims that the ambulance service lost $200,000, although he doesn’t state the time frame for that claim, nor does he acknowledge that it was his decision to implement a paid on-call program, with an exceptionally high rate of pay, that contributed to undermining the department’s profitability. What’s more, under Altenburg, the service never accounted for depreciation on its ambulances, something that the service has done under Suihkonen. Depreciation has been adding about $68,000 annually to the service’s expenses, according to city records, a cost that was not factored into the financial reports under Altenburg or previous directors. The service is also transferring $1.66 for every mile the ambulance is driven for an inter-hospital transfer to the service’s ambulance replacement fund. The Tower Ambulance Commission lobbied for that contribution, which the city agreed to make. That added $18,553 to the service’s expenses in 2022.
What’s more, under Altenburg and previous directors, annual contributions to the service’s ambulance replacement fund from area townships were counted as operating revenue, which also helped pad the “profits.”. That changed under Suihkonen as Ranua established a separate account for those capital contributions, which are no longer included as operating income. Had these expenses and revenues been calculated this way under Altenburg, the service would have showed losses of tens of thousands of dollars each year he led the department.
Even so, city officials aren’t sure where Altenburg’s figures come from. Clerk-treasurer Schultz said the service’s 2022 profit or loss won’t be known for sure until the city’s auditors complete their work later this year, but the preliminary estimate shows a loss of $22,967, not including depreciation.
“He did not ask and I did not provide the 2022 numbers to him,” said Schultz, referring to Altenburg. “So, I have no idea where the $200K loss statement came from.”
The service did show a $133,058 loss in 2021, $68,272 of which was due to depreciation. Under the accounting methods used under Altenburg’s tenure, the 2021 financials would have come in close to break-even.
Altenburg claims in his Jan. 20 story that Suihkonen somehow “blackmailed” the city into accepting a union contract, although he fails to explain what leverage she might have over the city. In either case, the union contract recently approved by the council reduces her hours to no more than 32 hours per week and requires that she take 16 hours of on-call time each week during her regular work hours without additional pay.
That puts her base pay at approximately $39,000 a year, but the on-call requirement saves the city $9,568 in on-call pay, leaving the net cost to the city less than $30,000 annually.
The job does not provide any insurance benefits, as would normally be required under the city’s personnel policy for any employee working 30 hours or more.
Setterberg said he has not heard any suggestion that Suihkonen had blackmailed anyone to obtain a union contract. When asked to respond to Altenburg’s claims, he was diplomatic. “As with many topics, a viewpoint of the situation can take information and slant it towards a certain direction to make a desired point,” he added. “We are not trying to hide the fact that all ambulance services are struggling to make ends meet including TAAS (Tower Area Ambulance Service). This is one of the reasons we have been getting help from the EMSRB, Northland Small Business Group, and creating the ad hoc ambulance committee.”
The Timberjay provided emailed questions to Altenburg for this story. He did not respond as of presstime.
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