RTM to vote on GEMS contract Monday night

Just days before its new contract with the town is brought before the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), Greenwich Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) received several key endorsements.

The RTM’s Legislative and Rules, Finance, Town Services and Health and Human Services committees all gave the thumbs-up to the new contract, which is scheduled to be voted upon Monday, June 9, at the body’s final meeting before a summer break. And these votes came after a passionate show of support for GEMS from the town’s Board of Health. Both Board Chairman Robert Carangelo and town Director of Health Caroline Baisley appeared before the RTM committees to urge them to approve the five-year contract with the town’s ambulance corps.

“I think that $4 million is a small price to pay when we’re getting 365 days a year of 24/7 coverage where whenever you make that phone call, no matter who you are, they’re going to come, guaranteed,” Ms. Baisley said before the Town Services Committee on Tuesday night.

Mr. Carangelo called approving the contract “a no-brainer.” The Board of Health recently unanimously passed a resolution calling for the contract to be renewed, calling it “in the best interest of the citizens of the town” and noting that GEMS’ expenses for salaries, overtime and benefits are lower than other 24/7 departments in town. GEMS’ response times of 70-75% in five minutes or less and 94% in eight minutes or less were also noted as is the town’s cardiac save rate, which at between 35 and 40%, is far above the national rate of 8%.

GEMS operates four stations in town, providing 24/7 ambulance service. The organization has the strong backing of First Selectman Peter Tesei, who has urged the RTM not to cut emergency services funding, and Mr. Carangelo echoed that.

“It’s quite shocking, given the size of the budget in this town and the amount of money we’re talking about that people actually would consider pinching pennies when lives are at risk,” Mr. Carangelo said.

There have been recent rumblings from some RTM members about the possibility of exploring other alternatives to GEMS. The town has a public/private partnership with GEMS wherein it receives yearly funding in the municipal budget but the organization, which is a non-profit, also does private fund raising for big ticket items such as new ambulances and equipment. RTM members have questioned the structure of the organization, and while a motion at last month’s budget meeting to cut GEMS’ funding never materialized the approval of the contract has brought up the topic again.

To that end, at the RTM’s Town Services Committee member Gerrit Argento proposed an amendment to not extend the contract for five years, but only one so the town could instead explore potential alternatives to GEMS first by seeing what other municipalities are doing and evaluating the merits of a private company being brought in. Mr. Argento called for Town Services and Health and Human Services Committee to meet with RTM Moderator Tom Byrne and Mr. Tesei to form a group to evaluate options, saying this would be a “responsible review” given the cost of the town’s support for GEMS.

“We have followed the same emergency service operating model since 1985,” Mr. Argento said. “Now we are between two five-year contracts and now is a good time to seriously consider our emergency service options.”

John Raben, chairman of GEMS’ board of directors, appeared at the meeting and said a one-year renewal would be extremely damaging to the organization, both in terms of fund raising for critical needs and in recruitment and retention of staff.

“This discussion is not academic, it has real world consequences,” Mr. Raben said. “The quality of the service is dependent on the quality of the personnel who provide the service. The uncertainty that’s being created, in the minds of the staff, for example, is potentially damaging. A one-year contract would end GEMS. We won’t be able to retain our staff or fund raise.”

Mr. Argento’s motion did not receive a second so it was never formally considered by the committee. It could be brought up again at Monday night’s full RTM meeting by any member of the body but Mr. Argento indicated that it was not likely to be him.

The committee ultimately endorsed the contract by a 7-0 margin with Mr. Argento abstaining. Four districts were absent from the meeting and committee Chairman John Harkins allowed an alternate to vote in his place. All the members of the committee acknowledged GEMS’ service record and said they were doing due diligence as a body to see if a better deal was out there.

“We’re come to talk about this relationship with GEMS with a great deal of respect because the fact is that it is a well-respected organization,” Mr. Harkins said. “At the same time we have a responsibility to look at this. That is our job.”

GEMS Executive Director Charlee Tufts and Mr. Raben pledged to make sure more members of the RTM received GEMS’ reports and other information online to be as transparent as possible and it was pointed out that Board of Health meetings where this is discussed are open to the public. Town Services Committee Vice-Chairman Richard Neuman said there were still a lot of “blind spots” in town with regard to the RTM getting information about how town money is spent, saying it went beyond just GEMS’ contract and is a continued frustration with the process as a whole.

“On the RTM we’re surprised by contracts all the time, not just this one,” Mr. Neuman said. “We should be brought in earlier in the process.”

Both Mr. Carangelo and Ms. Baisley expressed doubts that a private company could do what GEMS does for the same price, noting the ways the organization contributes, such as volunteering at emergency shelters during recent storms and how responsive it is because many members of the department as well as the board of directors live in town. They stressed that GEMS is invested in the community as opposed to a private company which would be operating to make a profit.

“They’d be interested in making money,” Ms. Baisley said. “GEMS is interested in us because we created them. They’re us. We are them.”

Mr. Carangelo said, “It is clear that GEMS provides exceptional service and I can tell you it is highly unlikely you can bring in a commercial provider that’s going to match it.”

The RTM meeting is set to begin at 8 p.m. at Central Middle School.

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