Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Adding insult to injury?

The City Council’s decision to charge a fee for fire-department administered life support is old news, and there’s not much that can be done about it. That doesn’t mean people are finished talking about it.

To put it bluntly, people are pissed. Many local residents see paying an extra $300 for medical aid when taxes theoretically already pay for these services as literally adding insult to injury.

On the other hand, it costs a lot of money for firefighters to administer these services, often before ambulance crews arrive on the scene of an accident. And sometimes there comes a point where an individual, a business or a government must choose to either provide less or charge more.

City officials said it came down to this — risk losing those life-saving services or increase their cost.

The city decided to side with citizens’ safety. And in a nod to money-tight times, the city also thought it better to charge the people who use the service instead of approving an across-the-board tax increase. Which, by some theories of government, is more justified.

(Also, the city probably couldn't have gotten away with a tax increase that would have affected the entire Tracy population. Sticking the bill to the estimated 2,000 or so people who receive life-support services from the fire department was a much easier political proposition.)

Problem is, this fee is not earmarked to pay specifically for paramedic services. Money collected form the fee will be directed to the general fund, where it can be spent on a wide range of projects.

Such flexibility, while practical, belies much of the rhetoric supporting the fee’s approval. The city manager told me months ago that there's an "ethical understanding" that the money collected will protect paramedic services. But the lack of an in-writing guarantee makes it easy to imagine that the "maintain medical services" plea is just window dressing.

I understand the logic behind the city’s plan. Little is easy in the current economic climate, and leaders at all levels must make difficult — and unpopular — decisions to fix out-of-balance budgets. Instituting the fee was one of those tough calls faced by the city.

Moreover, it’s a moot point. The decision was made months ago.

Still, we can insist on at least one thing — that the fee be repealed when the city’s budget no longer bleeds red ink. If it isn’t, we’ll know that charging patients for paramedic care really was just a way to pick taxpayers’ pockets.

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