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Charges for using EMS: a California town’s plan sows confusion

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In fact, the town says it has bent over backwards to accommodate its citizens by allowing them to subscribe to the service for $48 per household per year, $36 if the household is low-income. The $300 fee is charged only if the first responder, in this case with the fire department, administers medical treatment. Maciel explains that the city already had a private ambulance service, and wanted to augment that with a fire department that also had medical personnel.

“The good side of this is if the fire department arrives, they have someone who can go into lifesaving mode,” says Maciel. “We felt this was a significant improvement over what we had.”

In a phone interview, Maciel and Churchill explain how the city has cut $7 million from its budget, and laid off 80 over 4 years – 40 in the past 12 months alone – to fill major gaps produced by the loss of property tax revenue.

The idea to improve the emergency service came when the town had been flush with cash. Existing tax revenue only covered the infrastructure of having a 911 system, not costs associated with medical attention given as a result.

The town has growing pains. Through the 90s Tracy's population grew by about 70 percent. It is estimated that in the first five years of this decade the population of Tracy has grown another 40 percent.

The EMS cost recovery program could be implemented as early as April. But the fees have already sparked wide debate well beyond the city and state. Experts say the move spotlights several concerns about the costs of maintaining 911 systems.

The nation’s 41-year-old 911 network has of late been besieged by stories of million-dollar-software crashes, sloppy dispatchers, and too many “victims” who call the number to report their own child’s refusal to go to school.

“The plight of local governments is real, and the action by the Tracy, California government will serve to call attention to how dire the situation has become,” says Robert Field, professor of law the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

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