Atlanta--For the first time in 14 years, Kennesaw residents' emergency calls will be answered by a different ambulance provider.
The switch comes amid ethics charges lodged against Kennesaw's mayor and a pitched battle between two local ambulance service providers. Ultimately, a state mandate has forced the city to give business that once belonged to Kennesaw-based Georgia EMS to Marietta-based Metro Atlanta Ambulance Service.
The switch has divided city leaders and angered some supporters of Georgia EMS, who argue its service has been faster and cheaper than potential competitors, including MAAS. Georgia EMS's five-minute response time is faster than the 13-minute time mandated by Cobb County. And Georgia EMS charges $65 less than MAAS, according to information provided by both companies' owners.
"You can't get that from a larger company because they're busy and don't have that amount of time," said Councilman Bill Thrash.
Councilman Jeff Duckett said MAAS has pledged to maintain quality service and fast responses to residents.
But at this point, Kennesaw has no choice but to do business with MAAS. Local governments don't have the power to choose ambulance providers, but Kennesaw has long defied a 1998 court order to comply with a regional ambulance plan. In 2001, MAAS, which by law should serve Kennesaw, allowed Georgia EMS to step in. The issue appeared to be resolved.
But that changed this spring after MAAS complained to the state that Georgia EMS was "pirating" their calls. Georgia EMS now faces 12 months of probation and an $8,000 fine from the state. Then on July 6, the Kennesaw city manager called Georgia EMS to terminate its service. That happened days after the state Department of Public Health's Office of Emergency Medical Service gave the city a month's notice to comply with the regional plan and do business with MAAS.
City officials all agreed they should obey the law, although there has been division about how the situation was handled.
Some of the tension surrounds Mayor Mark Mathews' job with MAAS. Mathews has been the company's manager of government relations since 2009. On May 10, he filed a potential conflict of interest disclosure with the city and recused himself from discussion or actions about Kennesaw's ambulance service.
However, an ethics complaint filed by a Georgia EMS employee alleged he played an active role in its removal before making that disclosure and used city resources to do so, like arranging a meeting between him, his bosses and the city manager. Even Pete Quinones, CEO of MAAS, said the company should have handled that differently.
Mathews said he did nothing wrong, and the city's ethics board dismissed the complaint on July 24. Some residents were unsatisfied with that decision, including Eileen Alberstadt, who resigned from the ethics board after the meeting.
The dispute also raised questions about how the state awards ambulance contracts.
Georgia Public Health gives local councils the power to assign coverage zones, or areas within counties, to ambulance companies. Cobb County belongs to the Region III EMS Council, which covers metro Atlanta. The 28-member board consists of doctors, fire chiefs and private companies who deal with emergency response. Thrash said he wished Cobb's cities, which have one representative, participated more in decision making.
Cobb's contract was last opened for bid in 2001, when the council awarded zones to three providers, including MAAS. The county has since renewed the contract twice without opening it, and Thrash said that concerns him.
"Even if you don't change it, look at it and make sure you're getting the best value," he said.
Quinones, MAAS CEO who is also the EMS council's chairman, said the current system guarantees citizens the best care.
"Real simple, you get replaced if you don't do a good job," said Quinones.