A proposal by Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop to finance a new college scholarship program through privatizing some county-dispatched ambulance services faced strong criticism Tuesday from a roomful of paramedics, fire officials, and local mayors.
Mr. Konop's plan would endow a scholarship fund of $64 million to $71 million at the University of Toledo for high school graduates and older displaced workers seeking new skills.
The county would establish the fund with a bond purchase, financed by an estimated $4 million in annual governmental cost savings. Under the plan, most of the savings come by privatizing the 10 "advanced life support" squads that are located in fire stations throughout the county, and handle the most life-threatening situations.
All but one of the 14 individuals who spoke at Tuesday's hearing said the privatization component of Mr. Konop's plan was a bad idea. Nearly every speech against the plan drew applause from many in the audience of about 70 people, some of whom arrived in uniform for the commissioners meeting at The Source on Monroe Street.
Toledo Fire Chief Mike Wolever said he worried that the quality of ambulance response would deteriorate under privatization.
"We're going to lose the ability to provide that life-saving, time-saving response," Chief Wolever said. "I fear that our customer, the public that we serve, will suffer greatly."
Mr. Konop also faced criticism of his plan from a fellow Toledo mayoral candidate, Mike Bell. The former state fire marshal and Toledo fire chief noted how county voters approved a 0.25 percent sales tax increase in 1993 to pay for those emergency services.
"Their vote was for saving lives," Mr. Bell said. "I don't think that if you put that on a levy as a college tax levy it would pass."
Mr. Konop said he didn't believe privatization would affect the overall quality of response services. Many paramedics would likely keep their jobs under the new arrangement, he said.
Still, several speakers voiced concern that current paramedics would receive lower salaries with private ambulance services.
"On whose backs are these scholarships going to be funded?" asked Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener.
Mr. Konop presented his scholarship fund proposal as a long-term strategy to help Lucas County gain the educated work force that attracts business investment. He called the program "our best hope to change the economic trajectory of Lucas County."
"If we don't do something now, in Lucas County we will be a community like Gary, Indiana, or Detroit, Michigan," he said. "If we do something now we could be a beacon in the country for a community reinventing itself."
Approximately 22.8 percent of Lucas County residents age 25 or older hold a bachelor's degree, compared to 27 percent nationwide, according the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures.
In addition to privatization, the proposal calls for switching some county employees to four-day, 10-hour work weeks, and adjusting thermostats in county buildings to save money.
Recipients would "pay off" their scholarships by performing one hour of volunteer work in the county for every $20 received.
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