APPLETON — Despite pleas from members of the Appleton Ambulance Service, the Appleton city council voted three-to-one to transfer the ownership and operation of the service to Appleton Area Health at the start of the new year.

Members of the ambulance service, as well as Appleton Area Health, had asked council members to delay the transfer until October 2021.

The action at a special meeting on Wednesday followed a July 15 meeting at which City Administrator Willie Morales had recommended the transfer to help the city reduce its tax levy.

The city administrator was then recorded during a break in the meeting making a derogatory comment about Appleton Area Health CEO Lori Andreas to Mayor Dan Tosel and council member Jason Heinecke. After being mistakenly told his microphone was muted, Morales lauded the mayor and council members for being fair and measured in their roles. “I trust you guys, and I even trust crazy Lori,” said the administrator. “Even though she hates us too?” asked Mayor Tosel. “I trust her to be herself,” answered the administrator, which was then followed by laughter from the three.

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Morales began Wednesday’s special meeting with an apology for the remark, and council members heard public reaction. Warren Rau, chairman of the AAH board of directors, presented a letter asking for a formal apology from the city administrator, mayor and council member. In the letter, board members termed the remarks “inaccurate, unfounded and malicious.”

“I am disappointed,” Andreas told the Tribune when asked about the comment. She heard the apology on a recording of the special meeting. “I believe comments such as those are neither professional or productive or acceptable. I hope this kind of behavior was simply a grievous error in judgment and not condoned by our elected officials.”

The medical center’s CEO said she and her staff are committed to taking on the operations of the ambulance service with a commitment to continue to provide the Appleton area with the best quality service possible.

“What we want is to provide the best care we can to this community and the surrounding area,” she told the Tribune. “So we are going to do whatever we need to do to make sure they continue to get this best quality care .”

The health center would have preferred to see the transfer delayed until October 2021 for two reasons. Its resources are already strained by the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is preparing for a surge in cases this fall and winter. It is a difficult time for the hospital to allocate staff resources to the demands that will come in making the transfer and overseeing the ambulance operations.

The health center also has financial concerns about taking on the service due to the financial stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. An analysis by AAH indicates the service will likely lose $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

Andreas took on her role as CEO when the health center was in a precarious financial position, with no reserve funds. The city provided nearly $1 million in loans to the city-owned hospital and clinic in 2017. The AAH has since repaid the loan and has a cash reserve.

In making the decision to transfer the ambulance service, council members included action to allocate a one-time, $40,000 payment to the hospital.

City Administrator Morales recommended the transfer in a letter in which he noted the council’s desire to reduce the tax rate. He stated that the city’s tax rate is among the top 20 of 854 municipalities in the state. The city levied $158,900 for the ambulance service last year, out of a total levy of $1,500,788. Eliminating the ambulance service levy would drop the city’s high tax rate by 21.7 percentage points, he stated in the recommendation.

Ambulance service members support management of the service by the hospital but have also been outspoken in urging its delay to October 2021. Member Nick Mowes said the service members appreciate the concerns expressed by AAH about the demands of the pandemic on its resources.

Ambulance service members are also concerned that there are many unanswered questions about the transfer that should be examined before it occurs, he explained. The individual members do not know how much time will be needed to license the service with the hospital, and whether the transfer will adversely affect the eligibility of the service members for a pension.

Most of all, ambulance service members are concerned about what they consider a lack of transparency by the council, and the demand to set the January 1 deadline. Mowes said the city is rushing the transfer when council members acknowledge that they don’t know the answers to the many questions being raised by ambulance service members about the implications of the transfer.

The city had placed the resolution for the transfer on its July 15 agenda, and yet Mowe said no one is aware of any open discussion in the recent months beforehand about that possibility. Nor, he pointed out, had there been any open discussions about the $40,000 allocation that was offered at the special meeting.

Members of the public also raised these and other concerns to council members at the special meeting, but there was also support for the transfer. Dru Tosel, brother to the mayor, told council members: “Put your big boy pants on and run this as a business.”

Councilmember Amber Molden, who serves as council liaison to the ambulance service, cast the lone vote against the transfer. She cited the concerns of the health system and ambulance service in making the transfer at a difficult time.

The ambulance service currently includes nine members. One long-time member had been terminated by the city administrator and the service’s administrator recently resigned following a dispute with the administrator, according to ambulance service members.

Mowes pointed out to Mayor Tosel at the special meeting that the service members are very dedicated and deserve consideration for their concerns. He told the mayor that he spent his Christmas Day on an emergency call for a badly injured person and drove to Sioux Falls, S.D., and back in a snowstorm.

“There are people who are seriously considering leaving the service because of the amount of disrespect they have been shown,” Mowes told the Tribune of the recent dispute. He said he believes the “full throttle, no brakes applied” demand for a transfer at this time could lead to a crash into a brick wall.

“We are going to make sure we are continuing to be heard,’ said the ambulance service member. “We will cry foul if we need to.”

Andreas said she is confident the transfer can be accomplished without adversely affecting the dedicated volunteers. She said she is well aware of the amount of responsibility that a small number of people are carrying, and that making sure that their needs and ability to continue to provide the best care will be the priority.