Photo | Shane Rice
While the Mobile City Council debates whether or not to remove fire and police protection from a three-mile strip outside of the city limits to redistribute resources, David Hanlin worries about his stepson and if he’ll survive another 40-minute wait for an ambulance.
The city removed emergency medical services (EMS) from the police jurisdiction in 2018 and is now looking at possibly doing the same through a new ordinance aimed at removing police and fire coverage. The move would mean roughly $26 million in assets would be returned to the city limits, according to numbers from the mayor’s office.
The EMS pullback left Hanlin and his family, who live just over the Dog River Bridge from the city limits, without city EMS service. In case of an emergency now, Hanlin and others in Hollinger’s Island receive service from the county.
“After EMS pulled out, my stepson had a terrible situation where he was losing his breath and he couldn’t breathe and I’d raise his arms and push on him and he’d get his breath,” Hanlin said. “It took 40 minutes for them to get here.”
Hanlin and his wife had cared for his mother-in-law in the few years before she died. Because of this, he said, he has experience with EMS before the city pulled back on services.
“There were two or three times where we had an emergency situation with her where we called 911, the city EMS came and they came fast,” he said. “I mean, it amazes you how fast they came — 10 to 12 minutes, boom. They are very well-trained in the city of Mobile.”
“I don’t think there’s better emergency medical services in the country; response time and their medical expertise as EMTs is phenomenal,” he added.
Sitting inside the Parkway Shell on Island Road, across the street from where two Mobile Police officers were dealing with an apparent accident, Hanlin said he feels less safe at the prospect of losing both fire and police protection after also losing EMS coverage.
“I’m very shocked and very alarmed and concerned,” he said. “We have one [city] fire station just over the bridge a few miles on the right and we’ve got another one just a few miles from here, just off Rangeline [Road] on Commerce Park. So, we’re not a big added expense, by any stretch.”
Hanlin understands the debate from three sides. He grew up in the Oakleigh Garden District in Midtown before moving to West Mobile, but moved to his current location to be closer to the water.
“We’ve just always loved, you know, water frontage,” Hanlin said of he and his wife. “We didn’t move here because it was outside the city.”
Hanlin said he’s also a fan of the privacy that living in that area provides him, but he acknowledged it’s close enough to the city limits that having the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office patrol it would be an issue.
“You know, we are a neighborhood even though we’re outside the city limits,” he said. “You know, city policemen are better trained for neighborhood policing than the county sheriff’s office.”
The proposed ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Joel Daves, looks to remove the services administration officials have previously said cost the city some $26 million. The ordinance will be discussed at an ad-hoc committee meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 2 p.m. in the council conference room on the ninth floor of Government Plaza, downtown. Councilwoman Bess Rich will chair the committee and will be joined by Daves, who authored the proposal, and Councilman Fred Richardson.
However, County Commissioner Connie Hudson spoke out against the ordinance when it was introduced at a council meeting Dec. 31.
She argued not only that the city takes in more from the police jurisdiction than Mayor Sandy Sitmpson’s office has let on, but that it also doesn’t spend as much providing those services as officials have claimed publicly.
Hudson urged councilors to get all the facts before making a decision, adding the county’s financial department is working with various agencies to generate an accurate accounting of what the city collects from the extended police jurisdiction and how much it spends responding to those police and fire calls.
According to Hudson, when making its calculations, the city used a percentage of the money it spends on public safety as a whole instead of what it cost to service calls specific to that area. She said Mobile also takes in $12 million from sales taxes and other fees that often aren’t cited. All in all, she said the revenue collected in the jurisdiction seems to cover nearly all of the costs for the services rendered there.
“It is very, very close to the cost for the services. If you add in administration fees, it’s less than a $1 million difference,” Hudson added. “This is no windfall of money unless you’re going to do across-the-board layoffs.”
Mayor Stimpson’s administration acknowledges the rollback would not result in a straight cash savings, but would, instead, result in a redistribution of public safety assets.
The majority of the expense to the city is in police coverage. Roughly $17.3 million worth of police assets is spent in the jurisdiction, according to reports compiled by Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch.
The city spent some $9 million on fire coverage in that same fiscal year, but Wesch admitted that amount would go down since administration officials have stopped providing EMS to much of the area.
“We will realize some reduction,” Wesch said. “There will be some increase in public safety costs, but there will still be a big gap between what is spent and what we take in.”
The total for the amount of police and fire service in the police jurisdiction for fiscal year 2018 was $26.6 million, according to the reports. The city took in just over $12 million in revenue from taxes and business license fees that year. State law only requires a city to provide services equal to the amount taken in through business license fees. In fiscal year 2018 that would have been $2.1 million.
Public Safety Director James Barber told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting he didn’t expect to make any layoffs, but would, instead, move the 40 officers working 10 beats in the expanded jurisdiction to other areas within the city’s corporate limits. Specifically, he mentioned the nearly completed central precinct downtown as one area within the Mobile Police Department (MPD) that needs additional staffing.
Barber said MPD, like other departments in the Southeast, attempts to staff at a level consistent with 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents. He said Mobile is funded for this amount and but can’t meet that goal currently because of the 60,000 to 70,000 county residents being served in the expanded jurisdiction.
“We have funding for 200,000 people and we’re policing 270,000,” he said. “If we get out of the police jurisdiction, we would be at 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents.”
In response to Hudson, Wesch said the duration of calls to the police jurisdiction make up about 19 percent of the total duration of calls citywide, which is the reason the city calculated the costs for serving that area at 19 percent of its overall public safety cost.
Wesch said there are other overhead and fees related to the services, like police officer and firefighter pensions, which are part of the city’s public safety costs. Wesch did say the figures do not include capital expenses like police and fire vehicles, which would have increased the figures substantially. The numbers also do not include the work of detectives and other units outside of patrol, Wesch said.
As currently written, the ordinance would repeal more than $2 million worth of business license fees the city collects in the police jurisdiction, but leaves in place the collection of roughly $8 million to $10 million in other fees and taxes. Some residents living within the jurisdiction are critical of that aspect of the plan.
“That is truly taxation without representation in its rawest form, and it’s wrong,” West Mobile Annexation Committee President Del Sawyer said. “We’ve got to find a solution.”
Hanlin compared the council’s move to national politics. He said it seems like the city’s trying to build a metaphorical wall between its citizens and those who live in the police jurisdiction.
“Well here we are on the southern border of the [city] and they want to throw up this wall,” he said. “Suddenly we’re the tribe down here in Yahooville. We can only take care of our own, but we pour money into foreign countries and everywhere else … but right here, our own neighbors, just a mile away from the city limits, the heck with them. We’ll take whatever tax money we can take from them, but we’re going to cut them off.”
The prospect of losing city services has at least two groups of residents researching ways to join the city, despite a vote by three council members in November that blocked 13,000 West Mobilians from holding a referendum on the topic.
There are currently three ways a group of residents can join the city: through a referendum, through a petition of 100 percent of the residents involved or through forced annexation by the local legislative delegation.
State Sen. David Sessions, co-chairman of the Mobile County delegation, said finding consensus for forced annexation of a small portion of West Mobile seems unlikely, given it only takes one representative to stop it.
Annexation of those areas in the police jurisdiction would impact Mobile’s status as a majority-African American city, and the council’s vote to approve a referendum failed along racial lines. Still, Sawyer said his group is not giving up in its attempt to become part of the city.
Sawyer said he plans to discuss the issue with Council President Levon Manzie, Council Vice President C.J. Small and Richardson in the coming weeks. All three were the dissenting votes that caused the issue to fail. Like most agenda items, a vote to allow an annexation referendum requires a supermajority of five council votes. Sawyer said he hopes to help strike deals between the councilmen and the city, which would hopefully get one of the three prepared to vote in favor of annexation. Specifically, Sawyer said the deals could involve more funding for their districts or for affordable housing.
The rollback of the police jurisdiction “is coming whether we like it or not,” Sawyer said.
“It’s the main reason we’re not willing to give up on annexation,” he said. “Everybody has got to come up with a solution.”
Sawyer said pulling the services without letting at least some of the 70,000 residents it impacts vote is not fair.
The best solution, he said, is for the city to annex his 13,000-resident portion of unincorporated West Mobile and then help neighbors of the area start or join an existing fire district. For instance, Sawyer said the Seven Hills Fire District could be willing to expand. He added Theodore’s fire district could also expand.
“If we annex and each of those take on a bit of territory, that solves the problem,” he said. “It allows growth and doesn’t block the city from future growth.”
The ad-hoc committee meeting later in the month could provide valuable discussion with everyone involved, Sawyer said.
Hanlin has helped start a group called Concerned Citizens of Hollinger’s Island. The group, which began as a Facebook group, has an eye toward possible annexation and is open to participation from everyone, not just residents of the island.
“I mean, if someone can offer us input or insight and help show us what our options are and how to help us achieve them, we don’t care if they live in Alaska,” he said. “It’s an open page to anyone who’s concerned with our situation.”
County Commissioner Jerry Carl urged councilors to reconsider annexation.
Specifically, Carl said Semmes has been eyeing growth and would not hesitate to add these new communities if given the chance.
“Semmes will be the new West Mobile if you’re not careful,” Carl said.
He also argued these West Mobile communities could incorporate and block the city’s future attempts to grow its boundaries.
“Quit playing politics with West Mobile residents,” Carl said. “There are 30,000 people out there and if they incorporate it’ll hurt your cash flow. If they start their own city, you don’t think they’ll have their own shopping centers and gas stations?”
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