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Tulsa EMSA Signs Off on 4% Raises

TULSA, Okla. -- While city of Tulsa employees received no raises this fiscal year, EMSA employees will receive raises for the third year in a row, despite an ongoing state investigative audit and largely critical city review. The raises, averaging more than 4 percent, were approved unanimously Wednesday by the agency's board without discussion. A spokeswoman said they were in line with industry salaries.

EMSA asked city of Tulsa officials to approve an increase in ambulance transport rates in June and has spent lavishly in recent years on travel and capital expenditures.

Meanwhile, Tulsa firefighters declared an impasse Friday in their salary negotiations with the city of Tulsa, a firefighters union spokesman said. Firefighters with medical training respond to many of the same emergency calls that EMSA's paramedics respond to under an agreement between the city and EMSA.

The Emergency Medical Services Authority is a government agency that supervises a contractor providing medical service to more than 1 million people in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and surrounding cities. Residents can pay a fee on their utility bills that is designed to cover out-of-pocket costs not covered by insurance.

EMSA is now undergoing an investigative state audit into its billing procedures, travel spending, contracts and other issues raised by a Tulsa World investigation. Patients seeking class-action status have sued the agency and its law firm in Tulsa County District Court, claiming that its billing procedures are deceptive.

A recent city of Tulsa review made about 50 findings and found "no systematic approach to continuous improvement" at EMSA. The review found a rudimentary system of verifying patient addresses, risky storage of patient credit card information, a high rate of cases turned over to the agency's law firm and inefficient practices throughout the organization.

EMSA has changed many of its procedures and instituted new policies as a result of the city review and World investigation. The board delayed action Wednesday on a recommended 4 percent salary increase for CEO Steve Williamson until the state audit is complete. Williamson is paid a base salary of $190,861 and would be paid $198,495 if the increase is approved following the audit.

Williamson was given a 9 percent pay raise last fiscal year and receives salary and benefits worth $241,000, including a $7,200 car allowance.

Out of 44 EMSA employees in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City offices, 37 received salary increases, records show. If Williamson's raise becomes effective later this year, the agency's payroll will total more than $2.2 million. Employees who did not receive raises were either newly hired, part time or had reached the top of the agency's pay scale, records show.

All raises were retroactive to July 1, and most employees received 4 percent increases this fiscal year. However, four employees received a percentage increase of more than twice that amount, including Chief Financial Officer Kent Torrence, who received a 9 percent raise, and Communications Director Kelli Bruer, who received an 8.5 percent raise.

A committee made up of two EMSA trustees - Phil Lakin, a Tulsa city councilor, and Joe Hodges, president of Oklahoma City's St. Anthony Hospital - studied the issue of raises and met with Williamson. The two recommended approval, and the board voted 9-0 Wednesday in favor without discussion.

Lakin said the raises were in line with increases EMSA employees received in the previous two fiscal years. He said information Williamson provided showed that other regional ambulance companies and nonprofit health-care operations of EMSA's size had similar pay scales.

Lakin said he supported waiting to increase Williamson's salary until the agency completes its response to the city review and the state audit is complete.

"It's very important to me personally that we do not consider any adjustments to his salary or anything related to his employment'' until then, he said. Bruer said EMSA competes within the health-care arena for employees. "We have to stay competitive with salaries and cost of living increases to keep the talent and the quality of service we have. What we do is very specialized."

She said EMSA also takes into consideration the salaries of employees in the cities it serves.

"The increases are in line with the cities of Tulsa and Oklahoma City. All of these employees serve both cities, so both municipalities are taken into consideration."

Michelle Allen, a spokeswoman for the city of Tulsa, said the police and fire unions are still negotiating their contracts but that other city employees received no raises this fiscal year. Chad Miller, president of the Tulsa International Association of Firefighters Local 176, said the union declared an impasse Friday in its salary negotiations with the city and is invoking an arbitration clause.

Miller said the union is asking for a 3.5 percent across-the-board increase plus a stipend for EMTs and first responders. Miller said about half of the firefighters union's employees received 2 percent raises last year. Two years ago during a budget crisis, the city laid off more than 100 police officers, and firefighters gave up more than $5 million in pay and benefits to avoid layoffs. Oklahoma City employees received about a 3 percent increase this year, a city spokeswoman said.

State employees have not had raises since 2006, said Trish Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association. In June, the Tulsa City Council narrowly approved an increase to EMSA's emergency ambulance transport rate from $1,100 to $1,300, effective July 1.

Councilors agreed to the rate hike only through Dec. 31, which they hope is enough time to get the results of the state investigative audit.



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