EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 13, 2012

Delay in ambulance rate hikes upsets Methuen councilors

Mistake may have cost city tens of thousands of dollars

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — City councilors hoped to generate $160,000 in new revenue each year when they voted in May to raise ambulance service rates. Now they’re demanding answers after learning the rate hike wasn’t implemented until last week.

The delay — which Mayor Stephen Zanni said was caused by a “mistake” by fire Chief Steven Buote — likely cost the city tens of thousands of dollars, as several councilors said they were under the impression the rate increases already took effect July 1.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Councilor Tom Ciulla. “That’s messed up, really. We need to look into it.”

The ambulance service in Methuen is run by the Fire Department and generates just over $1 million annually. Ambulance revenue goes to the city’s general fund.

On Wednesday, Zanni told The Eagle-Tribune it was Buote’s responsibility to implement the new rate schedule.

“He made a mistake,” said Zanni. “I’m going to leave it at that. ... It’s done. It’s over with. A mistake was made and it’s been corrected.”

Zanni said the new rates were put in place in early December. That’s one month earlier than he told councilors at a meeting Dec. 3.

“We thought it was going to start earlier than this,” Zanni told the council. “It’s definitely ready to start Jan. 1. But because of Medicare and some other issues (Buote) was not able to implement it right away.”

Councilors discussed the ambulance rate issue shortly before setting new residential and commercial tax rates. Councilor Sean Fountain said the additional revenue from higher ambulance rates would have helped ease the burden on taxpayers.

“Those rates should have been implemented long ago,” said Fountain. “Someone has to have an answer for this.”

The City Council has asked City Auditor Thomas Kelly for a calculation of how much money was not collected as a result of the rate increase delay. Kelly and Buote did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment for this story.

Zanni said he expects to address the council about the issue at Monday’s regular meeting.

Councilors voted unanimously in May to increase the base rate the city charges for transporting a patient in an ambulance from $583 to $913. They also voted to nearly double the rates for numerous additional medical services.

The increase came at the recommendation of Buote, who was asked by Zanni to compare Methuen’s rate schedule with those in other area communities. Buote found that city ambulance rates were among the lowest in the region.