TULSA, Okla.– Mayor Dewey Bartlett decided Tuesday not to veto an ordinance that will provide more city oversight of the ambulance fees distributed to the Emergency Medical Services Authority. “There is very little difference between the ordinance and what is contained in the contract the city negotiated with the EMSA,” he said. “There is no reason to make a big deal out of it with a veto.”
Bartlett instead signed the ordinance, which was spearheaded by former City Councilor Bill Christiansen and unanimously approved by the former council. The mayor had until 5 p.m. Wednesday to act on the measure. During the former council’s discussion and vote, Bartlett contended that it was better to have the elements of the ordinance in a contract because a contract provides more flexibility for changes than an ordinance does.
Following the vote, Bartlett said he was undecided as to whether he would issue a veto. He said he wanted to discuss the issue with some of the newly elected councilors first. Council Chairman G.T. Bynum said he is pleased with the mayor’s decision. “I think it was important that we not start off with a new council having to look at a veto override in the first month on the job,” he said. Bynum said that if this was a “black and white” issue, then it might be different.
“But in this case, the spirit of the council’s ordinance was very similar to what the mayor wanted to do himself,” he said. Bartlett said it was clear that the new council agreed with the ordinance, as did EMSA management. Bynum noted that the council’s ordinance isn’t “reinventing the wheel.” “This is something Oklahoma City has had in place, and it’s allowed them greater oversight of the funds spent by EMSA,” he said. EMSA receives about $4.8 million a year from a $3.64 monthly subscription fee paid by Tulsa-area residents through their utility bills. It receives similar revenues from a utility bill fee in the Oklahoma City area.
Tulsa officials said the city collects more through the fee than it costs to provide the ambulance service, but the city has been giving all of the collected fees to EMSA each year. The ordinance allows the city to keep any fees collected that are in excess of the cost of providing service. If EMSA needs more money, it would have to go to the council to request it and explain why.
The ordinance also would set up a “rate stabilization reserve” of as much as 10 percent of the excess amount collected to minimize future rate increases. Bynum said that if the city has seen anything during the past few months, “particularly in the pages of the Tulsa World, it is that we need to have greater oversight on how EMSA spends the fees they are collecting from ratepayers.” In recent months, controversy erupted over some of EMSA’s financing after a Tulsa World investigation revealed that Tulsa fees subsidize Oklahoma City operations, that funds were spent on extravagant items such as rugs and trophy cases, and that travel expenses have been excessive.
The investigation also raised questions over response-time reporting. Bartlett has told the World that the newspaper’s investigation of EMSA’s spending shows that the authority’s board of directors needs to be diligent. “They have a fiduciary responsibility to ask questions, and it might have got away from them a little bit,” he said. He said the Mayor’s Office, the City Council and EMSA management will continue to work together to have “sound policies in place to best serve the citizens of Tulsa, which in turn helps EMSA provide the best emergency medical service to our city.”
Bartlett said he does plan to submit changes to the new ordinance for the council to consider. He also has told the World that he has asked EMSA for a report regarding a fatal accident involving one of its ambulance drivers in Oklahoma City on Dec. 10. The ambulance, driven by Benjamin Ward Samples, reportedly was traveling 83 mph in a 40 mph zone and driving left of center when it struck a car, killing its driver.
Before he was hired by EMSA’s subcontractor, Paramedics Plus, Samples had a history of driving infractions on his record, including driving under the influence, The Oklahoman has reported. EMSA said Samples cleared a background check before he was hired in February. He was fired after the accident. World Enterprise Editor Ziva Branstetter contributed to this story.