BENTON TOWNSHIP — Medic 1 is getting a pay raise.

And it’s hard to find someone with the 17 member municipalities to argue it wasn’t deserved. The ambulance service had gone 14 years without a boost in local government subsidies.

Still, getting the 8.7 percent increase proved a struggle among member municipalities. The subsidies, part of a $12 million budget, were approved by a narrow margin at Thursday’s Medic 1 board meeting.

Lincoln Township Supervisor Dick Stauffer said his township was among the members who had problems with the budget’s transparency.

“I had no trouble with the subsidy increase. I thought it was in order,” Stauffer said. “There is some concern about the budget’s clarity and transparency. We value the service, but when we saw the increase we just wanted to see a little more detail. When you see the increase, you think how did we get this number? But it doesn’t seem out of line since it hasn’t increased in 14 years.”

The subsidies are based on population among municipal members. The five dissenting municipalities happen to have the larger populations in Berrien County.

Lincoln Township will pay an additional $7,300 a year in Medic 1 subsidies. Lincoln’s share will be about $91,800 – nearly equal to the cost of an ambulance.

Among the municipal representatives present for Thursday’s board meeting, St. Joseph, Benton Harbor, Benton Township, Oronoko Township and Lincoln Township officials voted against the budget.

Jack Fisher, executive director of Medic 1, said the combined subsidy increase from all participating municipalities accounts for $75,000 of the $12 million budget.

“It’s not a huge increase, but it’s got to start somewhere,” Fisher said after the meeting. “Costs continue to go up. There’s not much else we can do. I think we’ve been fiscally responsible in trying to keep things in check for as long as we can.”

Fisher said last year’s budget was slightly higher because Medic 1 had a built-in staff of more people. But when the ambulance service lost Hartford, Hartford Township and Watervliet Township as members, Medic 1 took six people off its roster.

Current members that use the Southwest Michigan ambulance service include the cities of Benton Harbor, Bridgman, New Buffalo and St. Joseph, the village of Berrien Springs, and the townships of Baroda, Benton, Berrien, Chikaming, Lake, Lincoln, New Buffalo, Oronoko, Royalton, St. Joseph, Sodus and Weesaw.

Benton Township Treasurer Debbie Boothby, who serves as the township’s Medic 1 representative, said the Medic 1 budget wasn’t brought to a vote for Benton trustees’ approval because she still had unanswered questions.

Benton Township is one of the largest contributors to Medic 1 when it comes to subsidies, paying more than $84,800 a year. Boothby said since the township is on a January-December budget cycle, the board will have to approve a budget amendment to account for the increase.

“We’ve set our budget and wanted more information to bring back to trustees before we did so,” Boothby said. “We had some questions on what the increase was going to be used for. We didn’t want to vote on it until we knew more about it.”

Now Benton Township is looking at a $7,800 increase in dues.

The subsidy is based on a municipality’s population. The 8.7 percent increase can be broken down to an extra 50 cents per resident.

Fisher said the 50 cents would go a long way toward covering increased costs. Divided over the last 14 years, the 8.7 percent subsidy increase equates to a 0.6 percent increase annually.

At Oronoko Township’s last board meeting, Supervisor Mike Hildebrand said Medic 1 has a healthy fund balance and that the ambulance service could continue to operate with or without the subsidy increase. Hildebrand further said officials in some municipalities think the subsidy increase will lead to improved services and reduced response times.

For Oronoko Township, it would add $3,690 a year to the township’s Medic 1 bill.

Hildebrand said the Medic 1 budget includes a 3 percent increase in charges to patients.

Rising costs

The Medic 1 budget is more than just increased subsidies. It also calls for buying two new ambulances, a wheelchair van, a 3 percent increase for nonunion employees and an increase for union members that’s still being negotiated.

With 26 vehicles in its fleet, Medic 1 buys two new ambulances each year as it cycles its oldest models out of the lineup.

Each ambulance will cost about $100,000, which Fisher said is “pretty reasonable” compared to other bids they received.

The timing of the budget’s approval comes at an odd time for Medic 1. With the budget being drafted in January, introduced to members for approval in February, and the new fiscal year beginning March 1 – the budget was approved well after what was anticipated.

“We’ve never had this situation before. March 1 is the start of our fiscal year and here we are,” Fisher said.

The board even had a February workshop to answer questions municipal officials had in regards to the budget. However, the only questions township and city representatives had was in reference to the subsidies, which Fisher said he felt he answered.

“It was pushed back because of the subsidy increase,” Fisher said referring to the budget’s late approval. “We asked for it because we can’t continue to go in the direction we have with no other source of income. I would challenge every city and township to find a cost that has stayed the same in 14 years.”

Royalton Township Manager Steve Tilly said the township pays about $27,400 for its Medic 1 emergency services. That will now include an additional $2,300 a year.

“There is some concern over a couple issues, but it isn’t severe enough to hold the budget up. They’ve gone 15 years without a rate increase,” Tilly said. “Wages for Medic 1 staff was a concern because there has been a high turnover rate. But that’s something that can be worked on during the year and figured out. From my standpoint, we might need to increase it more to get the wages where they need to be.”

When asked whether other options were considered, Fisher said there were no alternatives to increasing the subsidy.

“The two biggest expenditures we have are personnel and write-offs,” Fisher said. “We don’t do anything extravagant. I’m the guy that vacuums the floor and empties the trash. We try to be frugal with our money.”

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski