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October 21. 2012 1:07AM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Could city-run ambulance service pay for itself?


 
WHEN IT COMES to budget hawks, Alderman Phil Greazzo is about as hawkish as they come. He would seem to be an unlikely source for the idea to have the city establish its own ambulance service. Doing so, Fire Chief James Burkush told the aldermen on Tuesday, could require the addition of 37 employees to his department and the purchase of five ambulances.

As Greazzo sees it, the ambulance service could pay for itself. “The fire department is already rolling out 75 percent of the time (if there's an emergency call). Somebody is willing to pay us a quarter-million to have that contract,” Greazzo said, referring to the current emergency ambulance provider, American Medical Response, which has faced a barrage of complaints over the size of its bills and its collection practices. “We're not going to be gouging people. We'd be looking at getting reliable service.”

Greazzo also questioned the number of new employees a city-run ambulance service would require, since many firefighters are already trained as EMTs. As for new ambulances, he said the city's hospitals could pitch in.

“I don't think it costs a whole lot for hospitals to pony up, especially since they're not paying any taxes,” he said.

Burkush likes the idea, stressing that his goal isn't to expand the size of his force, but to “provide the service and cover the cost.”

The city had its own service from 1976 until 1986. It was a perennial drain on city finances, due to poor collections.

On this score, Greazzo and Burkush were in agreement: A city-run service would stand a lot better chance of staying solvent today thanks to modern methods of bill collecting.

Figures provided by Burkush indicate that AMR has been generating a profit since it won the contract two years ago, but it's not exactly raking it in. In 2011, AMR had profits of about $700,000 on $8 million in billings. AMR wrote off more than $3 million in uncompensated care.

Mayor Gatsas, for his part, says he'll withhold judgment on the idea until he sees some hard numbers. “It's a matter of looking at the bottom line. If we're going to run this on our own, we're going to need to run it as a business,” he said.

The Fire Department is supposed to report back to the aldermen within three months with cost projections for a city-run service. In the meantime, Burkush recommended that the aldermen renew AMR's contract, which expires at the end of December, for another year.

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The compensation of city employees is public record, and no employee's pay has been the subject of public debate recently like that of Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau. Yes, he gets $113,000 a year, but, he's noted, plenty of other department heads make more.

It turns out that Martineau has also been getting a $27,000-a-year pension. While this doesn't make him the city's top earner, it does place him in the top 10.

Martineau has been thrust into the spotlight by Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur, who has called him the “poster child” for everything that is wrong with the city's Yarger Decker pay system, which mandates annual raises. And while Martineau's salary has climbed in the decade since he was first elected to the welfare post, the share of his agency's budget devoted to assistance has steadily dropped.

The pension comes from Martineau's previous career with the city's Board of Assessors, where he worked for 20 years, starting in the early 1970s.

Those were the days before pension became a bad word. The system Martineau paid into allows him to collect, from the time he retired until his death, half of his final salary of $54,000.

Martineau told me that there are “numerous” people who retired from the city with a pension and then went to work in another capacity for another department.

“I've been in public service a long time. The public has a right to know. If taxpayers in Manchester don't feel I'm doing a good job, they certainly can vote me out. I've been elected (to) six terms, and I run on my record,” he said. He emphasized the more than $1 million he's saved by bringing efficiencies to the agency and instituting a rigorous review process. (Social service advocates argue it's too rigorous.)

Martineau is also paying into the city's current pension system. So, yes, when he retires, he'll be collecting two pensions.

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Sitting in the hallway of the Welfare Department in the Carol M. Rines Center is a hulking piece of Manchester history: the old mayor's podium.

The aldermen are now considering restoring it and moving it to a location where the public might be in a better mood to appreciate the oak behemoth, built circa 1890.

Alderman Greazzo has taken the lead in the effort, going so far as to get an estimate for its restoration — around $2,000 — for the podium, which is worn, chipped and dinged (and may be carved with some famous initials).

“This is a significant piece of Manchester history left in the hallway like a piece of garbage,” he said.

Suffice to say, they don't make podiums like they used to. This one is a good 7-feet-wide and has eight drawers.

But where to put it?

Mayor Ted Gatsas says he wouldn't mind seeing the podium in the City Hall chambers. It certainly would be a fittingly substantial and dignified prop for his own formidable frame.

Several of the aldermen on the special Committee on the Municipal Complex, which discussed the issue last week, were supportive of restoring the podium, but first wanted to figure out where it would be displayed. The one thing they seemed to agree on is that City Hall was a better location than the Municipal Complex.

The issue was tabled. No pun intended.

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For the time being, the city appears to be taking a “don't cluck, don't tell” approach toward residents who have taken to raising chickens in their backyards.

Aldermen on the administration committee have been working with the Planning and Community Development Department, crafting an ordinance that would allow limited chicken-raising within city limits, as have a number of cities in recent years, including Concord.

The committee was supposed to take up the issue last week, but it had a packed agenda.

The zoning board recently denied variances to two residents who have been raising chickens while advocating for a change in the rules. The current ordinance prohibits livestock on lots smaller than one acre.

Max Sink, the deputy director of the planning department, said the city still has to enforce the ordinances, but said that there will be a grace period before anyone is fined. “In the meantime, hopefully we can develop a new ordinance,” he said.

Whether the full Board of Mayor and Aldermen will agree to a chicken-friendly policy is another matter. Sink said that since all publicity, “we've been getting more complaints from neighbors.”

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Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com. Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.

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