A sense of dejection and exhaustion among St. Croix EMS staff was laid bare in the minutes leading up to a split Hudson Common Council decision to part ways with the organization in favor of a contract with a new ambulance service.
Hudson Mayor Rich O'Connor cast the tiebreaking vote Monday, June 3, to contract city ambulance services with Minnesota-based Lakeview EMS. The vote brought to an end a more than two-year saga as council members wrestled with the idea of continuing with city-run St. Croix EMS or seeking a different ambulance service.
In the run-up to Monday's vote, O'Connor said he had been told by community members that not enough had been done to acknowledge the service performed by St. Croix EMS. The mayor said the decision to contract with Lakeview was not a reflection of St. Croix EMS's quality.
"This is not about the people that are staffing our current EMS system," O'Connor said. "These people have been very dedicated to our community and I can't thank them enough."
Monday's vote effectively pulls the plug on St. Croix EMS, which has been in existence since 1970. Other communities served by St. Croix EMS, North Hudson and the town of Troy, had been waiting on the city of Hudson - the service's largest funding provider - before deciding their next move. The two have previously voted not to extend their rolling five-year contract with the city for the service, which was then set to end in 2022. The town of Hudson has already contracted services with Lakeview.
St. Croix EMS has been running on low reserves in recent weeks but will be needed to operate while the city transitions to Lakeview. A Lakeview official said an optimistic transition period would be three months.
The council voted unanimously to increase wages for St. Croix EMS staff by 30% beginning Tuesday, June 4, in a move that could incentivize crews to stay on through the transition. The vote came after council approved the Lakeview contract and then adjourned to closed session for about 1 ½ hours.
'Let's stop playing politics'
Discussion in advance of the contract vote saw emotions running high in the council chambers.
In lobbying for a vote to be taken at Monday's meeting - in the face of a motion to delay it for two weeks - Council member Randy Morrissette II said an immediate decision was needed to stem "safety" concerns that spiked the previous weekend.
"Let's stop playing politics with the safety of our citizens," he said.
That prompted O'Connor to explain what had happened over the previous three days. He said city officials learned Friday, May 31, that the city didn't have ambulance coverage from 4 p.m. that day until 6 a.m. Monday.
O'Connor said he met with St. Croix EMS staff and learned that while nothing "nefarious" was at play, the ambulance staff was exhausted and down to two remaining paramedics. Five paramedics is considered fully staffed, he said.
"They have been worked extremely hard," O'Connor said, explaining that EMS staff had been trying to keep up while council members deliberated a contract with Lakeview. "They're tired. They're shot."
Last-ditch efforts to staff crews Friday and Saturday were successful, but Sunday was in doubt, so St. Croix EMS Operations Supervisor Josh Olson called Lakeview, which provided an ambulance for Sunday.
But when Olson was questioned later by council members about staff morale - "it's ugly," he responded - and what coverage looked like over the following two weeks, he and Morrissette entered into a tense exchange.
Olson told council members he didn't feel he had gotten adequate support from the city in the face of stress and long hours. Morrissette told Olson not to take the situation personally.
"This is bigger than you," Morrissette said.
Olson said that while council members negotiated with Lakeview, "you forgot about us downstairs," a reference to the St. Croix EMS station in City Hall.
"Yeah, staff's mad - because they see the same thing I do," he said.
Olson took umbrage with Morrissette's assertion that an EMS staffing shortage represents a public safety concern. He called aloud to Police Chief Geoff Willems and asked him how many officers he was down.
Seven, Willems responded from the gallery. Olson asked the council if that represented a public safety issue.
He then returned to his seat in the gallery, where a group of supporters applauded him.
'A rock and a hard place'
Council members Morrissette, Bill Alms and Jim Webber all voted in favor of the Lakeview contract, with O'Connor siding with them. Council members Paul Deziel, Sarah Atkins Hoggatt and Joyce Hall opposed. Votes fell the same way in a Hall motion to delay the vote two weeks to allow the public more time to review the contract.
Webber said he changed his mind on the matter since Monday morning and decided there was nothing new if the vote was delayed.
"I am not going to hear anything that's going to change my mind," he said.
Alms said neither the conclusion the process reached nor the ambiguity it caused left him happy. But he said he was proud of the open, public process that played out during the EMS debate.
Hall raised concerns about the contract's 10-year term and Lakeview's dynamic deployment system for coverage, which calls for ambulances to displace one another as they are dispatched for runs. Atkins Hoggatt listed a blistering critique of city leadership surrounding the EMS issue while Deziel said some aspects of the contract were favorable, while others were not.
Deziel challenged the notion that the Lakeview contract would save the city money; he contended that it would someday lead to the city's fire department forming a duty crew.
"I just see us as a city between a rock and a hard place," he said.
A copy of the contract is available on the city of Hudson's homepage.