Santa Barbara County is one of the best places in the world to live, work and raise a family. However, there are times when local governments lose sight of the bigger picture in favor of short-term gratification.

Tom Widroe

Tom Widroe

It is well known that both our state and county are facing a pension funding abyss, where public safety employees have been promised exorbitant retirement benefits that are unsustainable by current funding.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided no respite from those reckless promises, with residents and governments facing a gauntlet of unrelenting emergencies, while some of our local decision makers are gambling with the structure and efficiency of Santa Barbara County’s emergency medical services (EMS).

Instead of maintaining our longstanding and successful partnership with private ambulance providers, our county is considering a shift to what is known as the “Alliance Model,” in which public fire departments are given total decision-making power for EMS services without any of the typical and necessary oversight.

This potential threat is amplified by a proposed California law, Assembly Bill 389, which aims to codify the Alliance Model and give fire departments dictatorial power over EMS services.

As we see the potential for this inefficient and expensive model to come to Santa Barbara County, we feel the public must be informed of the potentially disastrous consequences should it be implemented.

Simply put, in the short-term, EMS revenue would be funneled back to the fire department and in the long term, taxpayers would see increased response times at higher costs.

For decades, private emergency ambulance companies have successfully run many of California’s largest EMS systems. This model has worked at no cost to counties or cities and ensured there are no disparities in ambulance coverage between poor and affluent neighborhoods — a matter of particular importance in Santa Barbara County — a fact that not only holds importance in normal times, but especially during a pandemic.

While private emergency services operate at no cost to the city they serve, a system run by public fire departments could potentially create outrageous costs for taxpayers.

We’ve seen this before. When a county Board of Supervisors awards the contract to its own county fire department, the department then subcontracts the ambulance service to a private provider or hires the ambulance company’s former EMTs and paramedics as ambulance operators.

Thus, in the end, the private contractor is performing the work while the public department gets away with overcharging and underdelivering, all while padding its own budget.

In Contra Costa County, this same issue resulted in a $10 million annual profit for the county Fire Department, while no additional revenue was provided to county programs or services.

While absolutely egregious, this behavior is in no way surprising. For years, unions have had lawmakers in their pockets and gotten away with outrageous behavior.

It’s time to put a stop to it before this model pollutes Santa Barbara Countyor, even worse, the rest of the state. Local lawmakers must critically evaluate the potential pitfalls of this flawed EMS model before rushing into ill-advised action.

— Tom Widroe is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. The opinions expressed are his own.

Tom Widroe

Tom Widroe

Tom Widroe is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. The opinions expressed are his own.