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Budget plan: More cops, higher ambulance rates

Woodbury Public Safety Department will likely add four new police officers as a part of the budget the city is currently working on. Pictured: Public safety director Lee Vague and Capt. Steve Wills File photo

Woodbury residents may see more cops on the streets by the end of 2010, but the cost to be transported by ambulance also could increase.

Those are key changes in the public safety portion of a city budget proposal for next year that also includes a roughly $8 million renovation to the department's main building. Public safety was one of few areas to see new spending in the budget plan.

"If we're not here for public safety, I don't know what we're here for," Woodbury City Council member Paul Rebholz said as the council signaled initial support for the changes.

Staff, building improvements

The city may hire four new police officers in 2010 and add to its community service officer staffing. The hiring of extra police officers had been proposed in the each of the last two years, but was delayed for lack of funding. That would allow four more officers within the department to be cross-trained as firefighters. "We just felt that that was a priority and we were able to fund that," city administrator Clint Gridley said of the 2010 proposal.

If the budget plan is approved, the police hiring would not begin until mid-2010, after city officials reassess the budget situation to determine whether funds are available. Hiring would be staggered because the four-month police training program works best with two officers at a time, public safety Director Lee Vague said.

This is a good time to hire police officers, Vague said. The poor economy has created a large pool of candidates outside the department, and there likely will be good internal candidates.

Beyond the four police officer positions, the city also would hire the equivalent of 1.5 full-time community service officers. They direct traffic at vehicle crashes, open locked vehicle doors, respond to animal control calls and handle ordinance violations, among other duties.

The budget includes a roughly $8 million renovation to the public safety building at Valley Creek Road and Radio Drive. The building needs infrastructure upgrades, including heating and ventilation improvements and repairs to a leaky roof, a larger training room is sought and city officials are considering ways to add a third bay for fire trucks.

The project has been part of the city's capital improvement plan for a number of years but has been pushed back two or three times, Gridley said. The project would be funded through a city bond issue to be repaid beginning in 2011.

Two-thirds of respondents to a city survey earlier this year said they would be willing to pay higher property taxes to pay for the project. The city estimates that an average value home would pay an additional $24 in property taxes for the project.

The project is in the design phase.

EMS changes

The city proposes raising ambulance rates by 12 percent in 2010.

After three years of flat ambulance service rates, officials said an increase is needed because the department has hired more paramedics and has experienced a steady increase in the number of patients on Medicare and Medicaid. Those programs' reimbursement rates represent less than half the typical cost per ambulance patient.

The percentage of ambulance patients on Medicare has increased 3 percent in the last year alone, from 36 percent of total patients to 39 percent. It steadily increases each year.

"This isn't an abuse issue," EMS coordinator J.B. Guiton said. "These are people that have legitimate medical needs for an ambulance."

Ambulance service can cost a patient about $1,200, but Medicare may only reimburse the service for $300, Guiton said.

Ambulance rates last were raised in 2007.

"We go as long as we can without raising it until a time period comes when, fiscally, we have to change it," he said, adding the ambulance service's fiscal goal is to break even.

The EMS division may purchase a fourth automated CPR device. Three of the city's four ambulances already are equipped with the $14,000 device, which provides a more effective way to administer chest compressions on adults. The nonprofit Woodbury Public Safety Board paid for the other three units.

"It saves people who are the patient, but it also saves our firefighters because CPR is extremely physically tough - especially in the back of a moving ambulance," Guiton said.

The item was not budgeted for 2010, but city finance director Tim Johnson suggested at an Aug. 19 budget workshop that reserve funds be used for the equipment.