Columbus doesn’t have enough paramedics. The Columbus Consolidated Government doesn’t have enough money to pay for more. And right now there aren’t enough incentives to keep some of ones the city does have.
That’s a public safety and public health problem, for reasons that don’t need to be explained. But it’s also a budget problem, especially this year.
Of course, money isn’t the main reason people do that kind of work anyway; being a paramedic or fire medic is not the path to wealth, any more than being a police officer or firefighter is. As Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Meyer told a Columbus Council budget review meeting Tuesday, the people in his department “do it because they love what they do, and they do it because they love people … they treat you the same, they treat you professionally. They care about you the customer.”
Of course, in an emergency medical situation, the “customer” is quite often in a life-threatening situation, or in acute pain, and frequently both. The urgency of these situations makes response times critical, which makes staffing levels a factor. (Twenty-seven of 36 paramedic positions in the city are currently filled.)
As reported by staff writer Alva James-Johnson, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2018 includes $57,331 to increase the pay levels of 36 positions requiring paramedic certification, and $31,288 to increase paramedic/fire medic incentive pay by $1,000.
Those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page in a proposed budget of about $268 million. But that budget also reflects an overall spending cut of 1 percent, and that amounts to a very big number. It’s a budget that would eliminate funding for such local institutions as Uptown Columbus, Keep Columbus Beautiful and the Civil War Naval Museum, among other spending cuts.
It’s a budget about which Tomlinson said late last month, “We have rejected all department and office funding requests, with few exceptions.”
Councilor Glenn Davis no doubt spoke for most when he said the medics “are worth more than what’s being proposed, all of them,” and he expressed some skepticism about whether the budget recommendation is sufficient: “If we make this move and put the money in that direction, do we have the confidence and assurance that in two or three years that the problem would be solved?”
He’s right, of course — this is clearly a stopgap measure, but one Meyer said he thinks will make a difference, “especially with some of the things we’re hearing from some of the folks that have left us in the last couple years and are showing an interest in coming back.”
Sometimes emergency stopgap measures are necessary until a more comprehensive remedy can be applied — a principle every paramedic would understand.
It’s not the only remedy being considered; like Parks and Recreation and other departments, Fire & EMS is looking at bringing in more funding directly. As James-Johnson reported, Meyer has proposed increasing ambulance mileage fees, transport fees, and fees for basic and advanced life support services.
Beyond those proposals, the money just isn’t there. “And it’s not because we don’t want to do it,” said Councilor Judy Thomas; “sometimes it’s because we’re trying to figure out how we can do it.”
Paramedics, like most other public employees who protect public safety, aren’t paid nearly what they’re worth to a community. That might be the worst-kept secret in government at any level.
After Gov. Nathan Deal successfully pushed legislation to increase the pay of state-level law enforcement officers, a lawmaker proposed that the state mandate comparable raises for all local officers as well. Given that his recommendation included no funding source for the hundreds of millions of dollars this would require, it predictably went nowhere.
Too bad; if there really were a magic-beans money garden for such things, this city wouldn’t be facing this problem. There isn’t, and it is.