GRAND JUNCTION, COLORADO — As a part-time Colorado resident (but income-tax-paying Minnesotan), I keep an eye on developments in governance and tax policy out here. After all, this is the birthplace of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), and Colorado's experience offers some lessons to Minnesota legislators who might get overly excited about managing state revenues and budgets by referendum.
Last week I ran across a story that might give pause to those who are enamored by the prospect of privatizing public services.
In Grand Junction, starting two years ago, the city fire department has done a sort of reverse privatization — taking over ambulance services once run by a private company and assuming the role as sole ambulance provider for roughly 1,200 square miles of the Grand Valley.
Critics blasted the city’s takeover of emergency medical services because it was estimated to cost taxpayers $1.55 million over five years. They also panned the ouster of American Medical Response and the company’s 28 employees who served the community for a decade.
By all accounts, AMR had done a good job. I talked with police and county sheriff officers who praised the reliability of service and competence of the company's workers. Area hospitals were concerned, too.
But two years later, criticism in this conservative community of about 120,000 has melted away. Ambulances get victims to the hospital faster. Fire stations are better staffed (with 35 people per day versus 21). Crews going to fight fires respond faster, and captains on the scene are able to better coordinate efforts and oversee safety.
And the department is operating in the black.
Assuming responsibility for taking medical patients to the hospital and between medical facilities has generated more money for the Fire Department than first anticipated. Operations Chief Jim Bright said he expects the department to end the year with a $250,000 fund balance.
One former AMR worker who now works for the department said even though AMR provided high-quality emergency medical services during its tenure: “I saw the side of things where it was always down to the very bottom dollar.”
The dollars still matter, but now they're all going back into the community and the people being served.
— Charlie Quimby