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Budget dispute causing issues between CARS and Charlottesville

Published: Apr. 29, 2022 at 4:03 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - The Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad has been providing service to the city for years. Now, a disagreement over funding is causing some bumps in the road.

CARS has a contract with Charlottesville: It takes people to the hospital, the city bills for that service, and collects what insurance will pay. Some of that money is supposed to go back to CARS, but the question is how much?

“I think that’s where there’s been a significant amount of friction in our discussions with city budgeting,” Deputy Chief Harrison Brookeman with CARS said.

The friction is because of one phrase in the contract, and one word that isn’t specific. In the agreement, Charlottesville says it will fund its proportionate share of CARS’ “reasonable” annual operating budget requests. However, “reasonable” is not defined.

“It’s stuff like keeping the lights on, paying electricity bills, heating bills, cooling bills, putting fuel in the trucks, buy medical supplies, things like that. It’s not, you know, buying new ambulances or new equipment,” Brookeman said.

CARS says it collected $1.1 million annually from EMS response for Fiscal Years 2019 through 2021. That money then went to Charlottesville. In return, CARS asked for $778,071 in FY19, $818,500 in FY20 and $750,000 in FY21. These were numbers CARS thought were a reasonable request.

Instead, CARS got $441,064 in FY19 and $450,000 in FY20 and FY21 - numbers City Hall thought were reasonable.

“We’ve definitely been trimming our budget over the years, trying to make things more efficient,” Brookeman said. “It does hurt us to be able to do that, to not have that funding coming in.”

“There’s a lot of elements that support a public safety response system. So while it may appear that revenue is brought in - and that revenue is supposed to offset the entire cost of providing service - that is far from the truth,” Charlottesville Fire Department Chief Hezedean Smith said. “The reality is it is a subsidy that provides some degree of support for a $12-point-plus million fire department.”

Smith adds, “The city has an infrastructure that needs to be supported, roadways, law enforcement, lights, and other equipment resources.”

CARS says this other money - fundraising and grants - goes to capital expenses like a new ambulance, not operational expenses which is what it expects Charlottesville to “reasonably” cover.

“Reasonable is a very ambiguous term because what does reasonable mean?” NBC29′s legal analyst AC Rieman said. “Is reasonable the amount that’s actually generated, or is reasonable the amount that the city determines would be an acceptable form of payment?”

NBC29 reached out to Mayor Lloyd Snook for comment. He replied in an email, “Too many conversations that have been started but not finished.” The mayor went on to write, “The best approach would be for the City Manager to sit down with the fire department and the rescue squad to figure this out.”

The current agreement was signed in 2017 with no end date specified.

“That is our intention, to revisit a memorandum of understanding and to address any concerns,” Chief Smith said. “My goal is to continue to have those relationships and those meetings as long as they’re respectful, and we’re mindful of each other’s priorities and where we fall in terms of priorities for the city and its service delivery for public safety.”

Both sides say the main concern is maintaining excellent care for people in Charlottesville.

“We wouldn’t leave the City of Charlottesville hanging if for some reason this hasn’t been worked out,” Brookeman said. “But it’s been a frustrating few years.”

NBC29 has also reached out the City Manager and budget department, but have not heard back from either.

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