DECATUR — The city council ordered a second report Monday as it prepares to decide whether to license a second emergency ambulance service in Decatur.
With the 5-0 vote, city staff will now schedule a second hearing with a public hearing officer to conduct the review into Arrow Ambulance, LLC's application for a license to operate in Decatur, Interim City Manager Billy Tyus said. The new set of findings will be returned to city council for consideration, Tyus said.
The vote is the latest development in a process that has brought the city's two major health care institutions, HSHS St. Mary's Hospital and Decatur Memorial Hospital, into public conflict.
St. Mary's in June acquired Decatur Ambulance Service, the only emergency ambulance provider in the city. In July, Champaign-based Arrow Ambulance filed its application, saying in documents that DMH had identified a need for additional service.
DMH officials argued in an August public hearing that they are seeing an increase of critically injured patients and demand for transport at the hospital. The public hearing officer found that Arrow should be issued a license by the city.
But St. Mary's officials disputed those August findings, saying the DMH figures related to non-emergency transportation from the hospital to another facility for further care, not EMS calls.
DMH did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday night.
St. Mary’s Interim President and CEO E.J. Kuiper said in a statement Monday that the hospital would work with local leaders to examine whether its ambulance service is “meeting the emergency needs” of the community.
Kuiper and other St. Mary’s officials have called the data provided by DMH “flawed” and misleading. In the statement Monday, Kuiper said an internal review showed the average response time to urgent 911 calls has improved to 4 minutes and 44 seconds, with a majority of responses under the 8-minute response time required by city ordinance.
The ambulance service question has put the city council in the position of having to weigh in on a conflict between two of the area's biggest employers. Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe and Councilman Chuck Kuhle abstained from Monday's vote. Moore Wolfe previously worked as director of community and government relations at DMH and earlier this summer was named executive director of philanthropy, advocacy and community relations at St. Mary's. Kuhle cited his wife's previous work for St. Mary's and current work for DMH in his abstention.
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Several city council members have refused to meet with either side in order to keep their decision restricted to the findings of the hearing officer, Councilwoman Lisa Gregory said at Monday's meeting.
"This has been a very different issue than what the council usually deals with," Gregory said. "I'd really just like the public to understand it's not that we don't want to talk to you about it, we are really taking the nature of a judicial role here."
Tyus said the involvement of the hearing officer is meant to add an additional level of transparency to the process. City officials do not want any appearance of bias or conflict of interest, he said.
In other business, the council voted 6-1 to approve a new contract between the city and Decatur's police union. The agreement is the product of more than three years of negotiations, but the biggest sticking point — whether new hires must live in city limits for five years — remains unresolved. That issue will be decided by the Illinois Labor Relations Board in arbitration proceedings, a date for which has not been scheduled.
Councilman Bill Faber voted against the agreement, saying it was a strategic mistake to approve a contract that did not include residency.
The new contract covers working conditions, including salaries, training, hours, uniforms, equipment, sick leave and vacations. Officers have been working under terms of the last three-year agreement, a 52-page document that ended May 1, 2015.
"We're just glad it's done," Police Chief Jim Getz said Monday. "The police officers, in my opinion — maybe I'm a little biased — they have the toughest job of anybody in the city. They haven't had a raise in over three years, and it's deserved."
Shane Voyles, the attorney that has represented the Decatur police union throughout negotiations, declined to comment Monday.
The city council's other action Monday night included unanimous approval of:
- New zoning rules that restrict large truck stops from opening more than a half-mile away from Decatur's major highway interchanges;
- Rezoning an area near Crossing Healthcare to make way for the construction of its forthcoming social services campus, funded by a donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation;
- Rezoning in the 1000 block of West Wood Street that would allow Blue Spoon breakfast restaurant owner Donovan Marschner to build a new restaurant on the site.