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EMS 'hostage crisis' deepens

EMS ‘hostage crisis’ deepens County agrees to demand, but EMS chief goes back on offer and won’t rescind resignation

Staff writer

Acceding to a plea from ambulance director Ed Debesis, county commissioners voted Friday to hire an assistant director to help with his workload.

But Debesis, who earlier in the day had said he would stay if an assistant were hired, declined to rescind his resignation. And once again, commissioners declined to accept it. Dianne Novak’s motion to do so failed for lack of a second.

“That’s kind of like EMS holding us hostage as a county,” onlooker Linda Peters told commissioners afterward. “That’s the part I have issue with.”

On Monday, Novak agreed with Peters and vowed not to let Debesis “humiliate and disgrace the county” anymore.

“Mr. Debesis is an at-will employee and may end his employment with Marion County at any time,” Novak said. “On March 19, Mr. Debesis exercised his right and tendered his written resignation to the board of county commissioners.

“Kansas has no laws or statutes that require an acceptance vote by the commission on these matters. Therefore, it is my position, as submitted by Mr. Debesis, his employment with Marion County will end June 1. I sincerely wish him and his family all the best.”

The issue of staffing the county’s ambulance has dominated commission meetings in recent weeks.

Debesis wants the county to hire a full-time assistant director now and a full-time trainer when the county’s new budget year begins this summer.

Commissioners agreed to the first demand Friday and said they would consider the second this summer.

The county already has hired 12 full-time ambulance attendants since Debesis became director in March 2016.

All in all, the county employs 14 full-time, two part-time, and 53 paid-per-call ambulance workers and support personnel, including Debesis and an office manager, at a total cost of $861,155 annually — the equivalent of 5.8 mills if the entire cost of the ambulance service were placed on the property tax rolls.

Before Debesis became director, the county had no full-time and 79 paid-per-call ambulance attendants at a total cost of $591,281 annually.

Testy words were exchanged throughout Friday’s discussion of Debesis’s resignation.

When Debesis arrived, he asked for a closed-door session.

Commissioner Randy Dallke moved to go into executive session, but chairman Novak resisted.

“We’re talking about Ed’s job and his position,” Novak said. “I don’t see the point of that.”

State law allows, but does not require, governmental bodies to conduct closed-door sessions to discuss personnel matters of non-elected officials.

Such discussions may be kept from the public solely to protect the privacy rights of the employees involved, not for any other purpose.

Novak asked whether county counselor Susan Robson could remain in the session, which would be allowed under state law.

Without commenting on her request, Commissioner Kent Becker seconded Dallke’s motion.

Novak again said she wanted Robson to remain.

“I guess I can postpone and I can get legal counsel, too,” Debesis said.

Novak repeated that she wanted the county counselor in the session.

Debesis said he wanted his fiancée in the meeting.

“If you need legal counsel, I need legal counsel,” he said.

Novak voted against the closed-door session but was outvoted by Dallke and Becker.

When open session resumed, commissioners said, as required by law, that no action had been taken. But they immediately took up the question of hiring additional staff.

It is not known whether commissioners discussed the desirability of hiring more staff during the closed portion of their meeting. Doing so probably would have violated state law, since no specific employee’s privacy would have been in need of protection.

“We’re still building a service,” Dallke said.

Ever since the county decided to augment what previously had been all part-time ambulance crews with full-time professionals, Dallke has stridently pressed for having three full-time ambulance stations, including one in Peabody, in his district, instead of just the two created in Marion and Hillsboro, the county’s largest and most centrally located cities.

Even with two full-time stations, full-time crews appear not to have been handling the load to date. Hillsboro ambulance in particular seems to rely at times on part-timers and on Debesis himself as fill-ins, according to transmissions monitored weekly for this newspaper’s Emergency Dispatches column.

Dallke said the ambulance service had enough full-timers only to cover scheduled shifts, not to cover when someone is off work.

According to Debesis, one ambulance attendant has been ill recently, and another can be called up for duty with the armed forces.

“That’s what Ed is asking for, is some help,” Dallke said. “That’s what we need to do is provide him some help.”

Becker asked whether Debesis had money in the EMS budget for hiring two additional people. Debesis answered that he could pay for one of the positions now.

“We’d have to wait on the other,” Debesis said.

Novak said she had contacted other counties in the region to see whether they have assistant directors and found that they do not.

Novak said Saline County didn’t have an assistant director, but Debesis said it had three shift captains who did that job.

Debesis pointed his finger at Novak and said, “I asked for one, not three.”

Novak said Debesis’s monthly report indicated he had worked 20 extra hours in the past month.

“I’ll start backing up hours if I need to,” Debesis said. “In the next month I will show you how many hours. I don’t clock in every time I answer the phone. I don’t clock in every time I go on a call.”

In addition to sometimes filling in as an ambulance attendant, Debesis often goes on calls as an additional responder, apparently to supervise or to provide a higher level of emergency medical service.

Dallke started rapping his pen on the table.

“I’m talking,” Novak said. “Don’t do that to me.”

Dallke kept rapping his pen.

The argument turned to how many calls EMS gets per year. Debesis put the number at 1,700, but Novak said that even when she counted standby calls, she got only 1,129.

“The question at hand is, is the commission going to hire two extra people for EMS at this time?” Novak said.

Becker replied: “I think he’s asking for one.”

Debesis interjected: “One initially and another at the appointed time.”

Novak asked whether Debesis wanted to rescind his resignation.

“I’m willing to rescind if you are willing to give me help,” he said.

Becker said commissioners needed to protect taxpayers and hold the line on spending.

“If we agree to provide him one paramedic, he can handle that internally,” Becker said.

Raising his hand, Debesis said: “If you want to hear from me that I’ll resign, I’ll resign. I’ll resign right now.”

Debesis said he had other job offers and people asking him not to resign.

“Do you want to work for Marion County or not?” Novak asked.

Debesis turned to Robson and said: “Susan, bail me out.”

Robson said if he didn’t want to answer the question, he didn’t have to.

“I’d like to make a motion that within this budget year, we hire one person,” Dallke said.

Dallke added that he wanted to hear back from Debesis how having one additional staff member worked out.

The motion passed on a 2-1 vote, with Novak voting in opposition.

Robson then said: “You’ve hired someone, and you now can take action on his resignation.”

Novak moved to accept the resignation. Her motion died for lack of a second.

Legally, unless an employee has signed a contract with the county, a resignation does not have to be accepted to become official.

Debesis submitted his resignation March 19 after an equally contentious meeting at which Becker was absent.

That meeting began to turn testy after Dallke started discussing how he had been informally negotiating for acquisition of a new full-time ambulance base in Peabody.

Debesis said he had sometimes stationed a full-time attendant there because firefighters and attendants had had difficulty sharing current space in the Peabody fire station.

He claimed that a TV remote control had been locked up and that paper towels had been removed so ambulance attendants could not wash their hands — claims that Peabody fire chief Mark Penner says are overstated.

Novak, unaware of Dallke’s solo discussing with Debesis and owners of what could become a Peabody ambulance station, questioned Debesis on the need for moving a full-time person to the Peabody station.

Debesis angrily responded that he could position staff wherever he thought they were needed, and Dallke chastised Novak for not discussion questions like this with Debesis outside of meetings.

Debesis then left the meeting and returned about an hour later with his resignation. Novak voted to accept, but Dallke declined to second her motion.

‘Longer reach’

Ten minutes before Friday’s county commission meeting began, Rocky Hett walked into the commission’s chambers with an ancient-looking croquet mallet, which he offered to chairman Dianne Novak for use as a gavel.

“Here, Dianne, this is for you,” Hett said. “You need this. This has a longer reach than that little thing you’re using.”

Novak didn’t use the mallet during Friday’s meeting but kept it in front of her just in case.

Last modified April 5, 2018

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