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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

What next for Tower’s ambulance service?

Joint powers proposal doesn’t fly


It appears the proposal for an ambulance joint powers board to operate the Tower Area Ambulance Service is all but dead, and that’s probably just fine. As we’ve seen in recent months in Ely, the creation of a joint powers board is no guarantee of either harmony in the management of an ambulance service, or of financial stability.
Most townships in the area are small and it appears some simply aren’t interested in playing a role in the management of an ambulance service. That’s hardly unexpected.
That doesn’t mean that the search for alternatives should end, but it may reflect that it’s time to explore another direction to maintain the ambulance service. Several years ago, the city of Tower and Breitung Township had all but merged their fire departments and were discussing other ways of combining emergency services. For reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, that combination was conditional upon the construction of a multi-million-dollar emergency services building that seemed to just keep growing in size and cost as the discussions over the project went on. Given that Breitung, which was in the process of inheriting the MINOS building, had little need to invest in an entirely new facility, and that the increasing size and cost of the building was being pushed by Tower representatives, the township finally put its foot down.
When discussions on the new facility broke down, the merger, which was already largely underway, fell apart. It was unfortunate.
Of course, the best thing about remembering history is that it gives us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. The merger of Tower and Breitung’s emergency services was a good idea and it still is. But it shouldn’t be conditional on the construction of a new facility that Breitung clearly doesn’t need. At the same time, Tower’s fire department is grossly understaffed and already relies heavily on Breitung’s manpower and leadership experience at fire scenes. Merging the two departments would not require a new facility, just paperwork, much of which was completed during the first merger attempt.
A merger would almost certainly save both the city and the township money on their fire departments, would ensure more consistent joint training, and would expand the number of trained personnel within the joint department.
The city and Breitung are in the best position to jointly operate the ambulance service as well, since they’ve already demonstrated they can work productively together on joint services, such as municipal water and sewage treatment. What’s more, city and township residents already make up the bulk of the ambulance workforce.
By combining the administrative functions of a fire chief and an ambulance director, a joint operation could reduce the number of administrative personnel for these functions from three at present, potentially down to one. A new joint entity could also look at a modest adjustment to the ambulance service’s exceptionally high on-call pay, instituted in 2018, which has crippled the department since it began complying with state law regarding on-call staffing.
The breakdown in the previous merger left some bad feelings on both sides, but most of the players behind that earlier breakdown are no longer involved. A merger made sense then, with or without a new facility, and it continues to make sense today. And by including the ambulance service in the merger, it can reduce expenses for the service and help maintain its financial viability.
It’s understandable that most townships want nothing to do with running the ambulance. But Breitung, which operates more like a small city than a rural township, is in a better position to work with Tower to maintain the ambulance service.
It’s increasingly clear the city can’t do it alone. As we reported last week, the city of Tower has already had to subsidize the ambulance service to the tune of $20,000 this year just to make its whopping payroll. The city, which is still recovering from its 2018-19 financial crisis, can hardly afford to continue to subsidize an ambulance service, particularly when the bulk of its runs are outside the city.
There really is no alternative but to find a sustainable path forward, and a merger of emergency services with Breitung could provide savings needed to maintain the ambulance service until higher-level governments develop a funding mechanism to support rural and small-town ambulance services. Ultimately, additional funding has to be part of the solution. Ambulance services across the state and country are facing financial emergencies. It’s time to dial 911.