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City weighs Symons contract termination

December 13, 2013

Photo by Marilyn Blake Philip

As of the Dec. 9 City Council meeting, the City of Bishop’s contract to provide police department emergency dispatch service to Symons Emergency Specialties was still not solidified but new possible future outcomes were discussed at length.
In Police Chief Chris Carter’s absence, City Administrator Keith Caldwell presented the city’s recommendation to stop providing dispatch services for Symons on Jan. 1 and collect the approximately $13,000 owed to the city through appropriate legal means. The recommendation – due to Symons’ unresponsiveness and overdue account – follows the end of the 60-day Notice to Terminate, which was approved by the Council on Oct. 15.
Caldwell’s presentation set off an emotion- and fact-filled debate among council members.
Mayor Laura Smith pointed out that “ambulance services are being reimbursed at a much lower rate than they used to be” and that Symons provides service to people even if they can’t pay for it at all. “Judd is a top-notch paradmedic and he hires top-notch paramedics and (emergency medical technicians).” She also cited Symons’ Dec. 6 payment of $3,200 as somewhat of a sign of willingness to communicate.
Furthermore,  according to her research, Smith said, “It’s fairly common for cities to subsidize private ambulance companies.”
Councilmember Keith Glidewell said, “It is unclear how Symons actually benefits from BPD dispatches services, since dispatch currently transfers callers to Symons via radio while remaining on the land line with the caller until Symons responds. If we don’t have a contract, PD wouldn’t stay on the line, they’d just transfer the call to Symons and we wouldn’t know if (a person) got an ambulance or not. I have to do more research on this.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ellis stressed that “communication is a key point in law enforcement” and that at $20 per call, the PD “provides an invaluable service to Symons, and they provide an invaluable service to the city.” He added that he would like to see Symons make full payment by the council’s Jan. 13 meeting or “we have to draw a line and terminate services.”
Alternatively, Councilman Dave Stottlemyre suggested looking at “a different contract with different numbers. This one isn’t working … We need a little more time to give this more consideration.”
Smith agreed, then explained that when a 911 call comes in, dispatch stays on the line with the caller and ascertains and relays information such as the need for law enforcement or fire department presence; if someone is going out to meet the ambulance when the caller’s location is difficult to find; the presence of children or pets; or the location of hidden outdoor keys or unlocked entryways if callers can’t open the door themselves. “The council is here for the benefit of the citizens, not Symons.”
Stottlemyre brought up the “need to see a payment schedule by the next council meeting” and to receive full, up-to-date payment by the end of 2013-14 fiscal year in June.
Smith went so far as to say she is in favor of a no-charge contract since BPD “dispatchers are there anyway so there’s no extra cost to the city.” In light of the fact that up until 2012, the city had provided dispatch services for free, “I’m in favor of forgiving the amount due although, because it’s a contract, he should make good on it.”
Councilwoman Pat Gardner said, “We need to not go on our emotions here. Even though Symons provides excellent service, this is serious breach of contract. We owe it to the people of Bishop not to tolerate that … Symons had every opportunity to renegotiate the contract and didn’t.” Caldwell chimed in on that note, pointing out that Symons was aware of the City Council meeting but was not in attendance. “I’m worried about setting a precedent of allowing contracts to lapse.”
Ellis added that San Bernardino-based Symons Ambulance, to which Bishop’s Symons is affiliated, saw revenues of $2.8 million in 2011 and called for “honest communication, (to be) worked out man to man, company to company.” On the other hand, Stottlemyre said, “Judd feels Symons could handle a flat fee of $100 per month,” referring back to a previous 2012 discussion between Judd Symons and the city.
However, for the record, Glidewell said he was not in favor of any contract between Symons and the city in light of Symons’ payment and communication track record. He added that Symons would, of course, still provide services and BPD would simply transfer 911 calls without staying on the line.” Ellis said he too had lost all confidence in Symons, while Stottleymyre said, “We need to assume our constituents are being served.”
Smith then summarized the evening’s “good round of discussion with a lot of good points brought up … As I see it, we want to hold Symons to the current contract; return on Jan. 13 with other possible contract solutions; and look at re-evaluating the city’s dispatch services fee.” The agenda item was moved to the next council meeting, Caldwell said, to give him time to “attempt to open a line of communication with Symons and to set a payment plan. We will be reconsidering our position at the Jan. 13 council meeting.”
According to documentation attached to the Dec. 9 council agenda package, Carter has made at least 14 written attempts to communicate with Symons since June and yet Symons still “has not responded to the city’s request to provide documentation of financial hardship … The city recognizes and appreciates the valuable service to the public that Symons provides,” however as a private, for-profit business, Symons is “not entitled to have their operation funded with taxpayer monies.”
On Dec. 13, Judd Symons said, “This is my community and we plan to stay here and serve it. There are difficulties but they can be overcome.” A BPD spokesperson confirmed that the city would also continue to provide dispatch services pending City Council’s final determination in 2014.

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