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Ambulance vote stuns audience

With a framed photograph of her son clamped under her arm, Cynthia McMahon-Cino stepped up to the podium Friday night to express her views about the county's ambulance service to the Board of Commissioners.

She said in November 1991 her son, John, had to be flown to Tampa General Hospital after a severe automobile accident and the chief of pediatric surgery told the family it was a miracle the boy didn't die at the scene.

"The care that my son received from the paramedics who treated him was so good that he lived," she said, holding the portrait up high, "and he'll graduate from high school this year.

"When you talk about ambulance service, you're talking about human lives. Don't sell our county short by signing with this private company trying to save a few dollars. Please stick with our hometown ambulance service."

Cino was one of many residents who urged the Board of Commissioners not to negotiate a contract for private ambulance service with Florida Regional Emergency Medical Services. They asked commissioners to stop the negotiations for private service and explore ways to improve the existing service.

Residents who attended the public hearing at Curtis Peterson Auditorium were shocked when commissioners voted 4-1 to negotiate a contract with Florida Regional that would privatize the county's ambulance service.

"I do not believe I've seen sufficient evidence to show that the quality of service would be lowered by going private," Commissioner Brad Thorpe said. "I do believe it's time for a change."

Chairman Frank Schiraldi said he had talked to people in Lake, Sumter and Hernando counties about the service Florida Regional was providing, and he had heard few complaints.

"I cannot in good conscience turn my back on a savings of $1.6-million," Schiraldi said. "My biggest concern is the quality of service, and I have seen nothing that would convince me it would suffer."

Commissioner Gary Bartell cast the only vote against private ambulance service. He received wild applause for taking the lone stand against privatization.

"I believe Florida Regional could do the job, but in my heart I believe we should look within our own system to make improvements before we look outside. And for that reason, I will have to oppose negotiating with this private firm."

Florida Regional representatives gave a slide presentation and showed a short film that highlighted the company's advantages.

Florida Regional representative Bill Compton said if his company were allowed to handle the ambulance service, it would protect the jobs of current ambulance employees, provide more protection and lower the county's costs. Compton said privatization also would allow the county to have no liability, yet the county still would retain local control.

"Our whole intent here is to make your system better than it is," Compton said. "The word change is very difficult. The fear of the unknown is very difficult."

County EMS supervisor Kevin Mulligan was the most vocal opponent of privatization. He said the total savings would amount to only $3.28 per household and that Florida Regional is only concerned about making money.

Mulligan argued that going private might slightly lower people's tax bills, but that Florida Regional would overcharge citizens for gloves, drugs, neck braces and other items people now receive free.

"I urge you to listen to the 2,700 people who signed a petition to keep EMS intact and reject the Florida Regional bid," Mulligan said. "You have 40 employees who will help you make improvements to make the system better."

Dr. Robert Arrington, director of the emergency department at Citrus Memorial Hospital, spoke in favor of the current system.

"I've been a physician for 20 years, with 1{ years at Citrus Memorial Hospital," he told the commissioners. "I've dealt with many EMS services and Citrus County's is the best.

"I can't speak about financial matters, but the medical care they provide is the best. I urge the commissioners not to accept a lesser quality of ambulance service in the name of economy."

Dr. William Leonard, an emergency room physician at Seven Rivers Community Hospital and assistant medical director of EMS, also opposed privatizing.

"I don't think money is a solution," Leonard said. "We have a fine system and if we need to save money, there are ways to do it in our own system. We don't need to go private."