WARREN, Pa. – While Monday’s City Council budget work session served as an “introduction” to the budget for incoming Councilmembers, one thing remained abundantly clear.
The EMS crisis isn’t going away anytime soon.
City staff had previously told council they believed the City’s fund balance could be maintained without a tax increase until 2024. That prompted Councilman John Wortman to ask what options council would have to maintain both tax rates and city services.
“Is there a way for us to maintain our current tax rates when we get to 2023 (and) maintain our level of service before we have to adapt our service level?” Worman asked. “Is it possible to address our budget without having to raise taxes to not have to change our service levels? And if there are changes that need to be made, what is city staff’s recommendation?”
Those questions quickly pivoted the discussion to the current EMS situation.
“I think the biggest issues are your fire and EMS services,” City Manager Nancy Freenock said. “We’re talking right now about the EMS but I think Fire won’t be far behind. Volunteers are aging out. So whether we move to an authority at the county level and the city’s current fire department staff is limited or becomes a separate entity, it’s going to impact the services available in the city.”
The city has been working to find a solution to the EMS issue, especially in regard to mutual aid for municipalities outside city limits. The City has a letter from the Department of Health stating that it does not have to respond to calls outside the city, but Council has yet to take any official action on that letter.
Wortman pointed to the recent decision by Sheffield Volunteer Fire Department to change ambulance service from Basic Life Support to Quick Response Service as a reason to make a decision sooner rather than later.
The longer City Council waits to act, Wortman said, “other municipalities are making decisions that impact us, and I understand why we’re waiting to make this decision, but it needs to be the immediate priority when our new council gets sworn into office.”
“Every time that we continue to not act on this question, it is potentially leading to a situation where our assets and services that our taxpayers pay for, that they keep having their taxes raised to pay for, are not going to be available,” Wortman said.
Mayor Maurice Cashman said simply ending responses outside the city would also lead to a tax increase.
“If you took the action and we’re doing no EMS services outside of the city, that’s going to lead to a tax increase because you’re going to lose revenue,” Cashman said. “So there’s a lot more to the EMS problem than just we have the right to do this.”
Cashman added that if the City stops responding to mutual aid requests outside city limits, then other municipalities could stop responding to requests from the city as well.
“It gets to be more of a two-way street than meets the eye,” Cashman said. “So consequently, that decision and where we go from here is a very, very delicate scenario.”
What the city does about the EMS issue, Wortman said, will ultimately answer many of the current budget questions.
“The answer to those (EMS) questions, is also the answer to these budget issues,” Wortman said.