Boulder officials are preparing to open bids on a new contract for a citywide ambulance service that will no longer include responding to routine calls from residents in western Boulder County.
City leaders say they have a rare chance to get a higher level of service and faster response times by doing away with the city's longtime partnership with Boulder County. But the move has some county officials worried about attracting a provider of their own by the end of the year.
Since 1999, the city of Boulder and Boulder County have shared a service contract with Pridemark Paramedic Services. The agreement is set to expire on Dec. 31.
While Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle has been working for the last year to convince city officials to continue working with the county, Boulder's city manager has decided to go it alone.
"The city felt compelled to ... do its own (bidding process) to make sure we're providing the highest level of service to city of Boulder residents," said Patrick von Keyserling, a city spokesman.
The city's request for proposals won't be made public until sometime this summer, but Boulder Fire Chief Larry Donner said Thursday that it would likely require a certain number of ambulances to be assigned exclusively to the city. The crews would not be allowed to leave the city unless there was a request for emergency mutual aid from a neighboring community, which cities such as Longmont have made standard practice.
Von Keyserling said the city has seen other Boulder County municipalities -- such as Longmont, Lafayette and Louisville -- leave the Pridemark contract in recent years. The expiring agreement, he said, gives Boulder the opportunity to look at whether having its own service area would result in faster response times and better service.
Pelle said he understands that desire, but he also argues that having the city as a partner is one of the only ways that a private ambulance company could afford to dedicate resources to western parts of the county.
"The bottom line is, there's not enough business in the remainder of the county to provide ambulance service without being supplemented somehow," Pelle said.
That's because private ambulance services rely on a high volume of calls to stay profitable. While the city generates about 6,000 calls for service each year, there are only about 1,200 calls in the county. And, not everyone has insurance, or can pay for the $800 ride to the hospital.
A taskforce made up of city and county authorities determined last year that asking Boulder County voters to support a special tax district for ambulance service likely wouldn't go over well, as the annual cost to residents would be about $500.
Leonard Kottenstette, a longtime Nederland resident who was working at the Ace Hardware in town on Thursday, said that's probably an accurate assessment.
"I wouldn't like to see taxes go up," he said, adding that if they had to, he'd rather see the money go to local schools instead of ambulances.
It's tough, Pelle has said, to convince people to pay for something that they've typically gotten for free.
Despite the tension that the issue has created between the city and county, Pelle said he doesn't blame Boulder for causing the conundrum. Instead, he said there was a "lack of regional thinking" when cities like Longmont and Lafayette pulled out of the Pridemark contract to develop their own services.
"Everybody in the county would be better off with a regional service," Pelle said.
But since that doesn't seem likely anymore, Pelle said Boulder County has put out feelers for what it would cost to have its own ambulance contract beginning next year.
The county recently heard back from four companies, Pelle said, but none of them said what their services would cost since that depends largely on whether they also win the city's contract. Pelle said the county plans to issue its own request for proposals next month, which will ask providers to spell out the cost of their services whether or not they end up servicing Boulder.
"Those will be two very different answers," Pelle said. "It's complex, but we are committed to having ambulance service in the county."
Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam said the city has agreed to schedule its bidding process to give the county time to work with whatever company it picks.
"This approach enables both the county and the city to contract for the highest level of service available and provides an opportunity for the county to negotiate with the same provider selected by the city," Brautigam said.
Some county officials, however, found that to be a disingenuous take on the situation.
"It certainly allows the city to get whatever level of service that they want," said Rick Dirr, chief of the Nederland Fire Protection District. "We still don't believe the revenue is there to provide the existing level of service unless we go with the city's provider."
To do otherwise, he said, would likely take action on the part of the Board of County Commissioners.
"This ends up being a political issue, I think, for the commissioners," Dirr said. "At some point, I think they're going to have to make some tough decisions."
Commissioner Will Toor, for his part, said he believes using taxpayer money to support ambulance service in the county would be a "last resort."
He said he's hopeful that the county will be able to work out an arrangement with whatever provider the city chooses. He added that he "certainly understands" how Boulder has ended up on its own path, even if it might not lead to the best outcome for the county.
Commissioner Ben Pearlman agreed, adding that Boulder continues to have a stake in the county's ambulance service.
"The truth is that a lot of people who end up injured or hurt up in the unincorporated parts of the mountains of Boulder County are Boulder residents," he said.
Susannah Jordan, 72, lives in Lefthand Canyon just west of Lee Hill Drive.
She said she appreciates that "all government entities are starving at the moment," but "I do not know whether ambulance service is bread or cake."
She hopes that the city and county can figure that out, soon.