Lawrence Common Council criticized for voting down raise for EMS workers



By Sam Elliott

The Lawrence Common Council’s decision from June 15 not to approve a $2 hourly raise for the city’s EMS workers was brought fire and criticized during 15 public comments from residents at the council’s July 5 meeting.

The council unanimously approved Proposal 7, which increased the city’s ambulance fee, but denied Proposal 6, which would have granted the pay raise, but a 6-3 vote.

Lawrence Common Council President Joe Williams released a statement June 27 that said, in part, “The council unanimously approved Proposal 7 and denied Proposal 6. However, it is the council’s intent to review the proposal and the impact of the increased revenue over time. Six months after the new emergency response rates go into effect, the council will reconsider Proposal 6. Until then, it is fiscally irresponsible to approve pay increases without sufficient evidence of sustainable funds.

“The council will not put politics over public safety. The City of Lawrence has a history of using unsustainable funds to attempt to reach an end goal, only to fall short when funds dry up.”

Common Council members Rick Wells and Bob Jones expressed disapproval with Williams issuing the statement, which was printed under a “City of Lawrence Common Council” letterhead, without notifying or sharing it with the rest of the council prior to its release, and with the wording suggesting the pay raise was also unanimously declined.

Proposal 11, adopted unanimously by the council July 5, will result in a one-time payment of more than $445,000 from the Office of Medicaid Policy and Planning into the EMS fund, which had a balance of approximately $1.5 million as of the end of May, Controller Jason Fenwick said.

The fund, which would pay for the proposed raises, has been between $115,000 and $480,000 in the negative at the end of the past three years, but Fenwick and Mayor Steve Collier told the council that would no longer be the case due to the one-time payment and expected similar payments in the future, the city’s increased ambulance fees and by no longer using the fund to pay approximately 14 firefighters’ salaries. Fenwick said the proposed raises would be able to be sustained indefinitely from the EMS fund.

The city’s current EMS pay, $12 per hour, has left Fire Chiefs Dino Batalis struggling to man ambulances while also fully staffing fire trucks. Paying firefighters overtime to backfill ambulances costs the city approximately $8,600 per month.

Williams said the council was given some inaccurate information before its vote to deny the raises. He said the issue would be revisited very soon.

“We’re right on it,” he said. “I don’t want to give any definites, but I’ll tell you this will be a priority.”