Judge rules ambulance company in violation


A district court judge has ruled that a private ambulance company not paying for dispatch services from the Valencia County Regional Dispatch Center is indeed a violation of the state constitution's anti-donation clause.

Last week, District Court Judge William Sanchez heard more than two hours of arguments from attorneys on the opposite sides of a battle that has been alternatively raging and simmering for years.

Since 1997, Living Cross Ambulance Service has, for the most part, been the only lawfully certified ambulance service in Valencia County. During those 15 years, local dispatch services have handled 911 calls for the company's ambulances.

The argument has been consistently made that if LCAS received dispatch services, it needed to pay.

Living Cross' attorney Steven Chavez has consistently made the argument that the company does not.

In April 2011, Chavez filed suit on behalf of Living Cross Ambulance Service asking for declaratory judgement and a permanent injunction against the village of Los Lunas, Valencia County commissioners and Valencia County Regional Emergency Communications Center.

Chavez argued Living Cross doesn't owe anything, but village, county and dispatch center officials felt the company owes upward of $180,000 for services rendered.

In his suit, Chavez asked that the court determine LCAS doesn't owe anything and the defendants must provide 911 dispatch services, as required by law, and providing 911 dispatch does not violate the state's anti-donation clause.

The complaint also asked the court to permanently enjoin the defendants from asserting, in any forum, that Living Cross legally owes them any money, attempting to collect any alleged fees and from "illegally and improperly failing to dispatch 911 emergency medical carriage to LCAS as required and provided by law."

Sanchez's decision last week can be best described as a mixed bag for Living Cross. While he did rule there was a violation of the anti-donation clause and ordered the ambulance company to begin negotiations with VCRECC, Sanchez did not stipulate an amount to be contracted for, nor did he order back payments.

He also found that until such time as LCAS can begin dispatching for itself, the emergency communications center must continue to do so.

During the hearing, Chavez argued that the VCRECC had no power to charge a fee for its services.

"They propose this is for operational costs," Chavez said. "It's single purpose is to grow revenue."

He continued, saying any incidental revenue could be used to offset costs of regulatory expenses.

"But the purpose of this fee is 100 percent to raise revenues," he said. "It's not regulatory, not part of the policing powers under regulatory powers.

Chavez also argued that Living Cross could not be regulated by local government since it was already governed by a "slew" of Public Regulations Commission regulations.

"Those regulations cannot be preempted by local government authority," he said.

It was also Chavez's contention that since the county taxpayers had authorized the imposition of an additional gross receipts tax to support VCRECC, and Living Cross paid GRT as a business, the ambulance already pays its part of operational costs for the dispatch center.

"They do pay in, as all other businesses do," he said.

Judge Sanchez asked if radio monitoring and call routing were acceptable to Living Cross in lieu of dispatching.

"Absolutely not," Chavez replied. "This is a safety issue for the residents of Valencia County. It delays dispatching. It doesn't allow any communication with VCRECC, which we believe violates the law."

Joe Ernest, Chavez's co-council, said call routing would be inappropriate because, as an ambulance service, Living Cross has no duty to serve until it was dispatched.

"Dispatch stays on the line. If someone is having a heart attack, they talk to them how to help that individual until the ambulance arrives," Ernest said. "Dispatch advises the ambulance of the progress of the situation to give the ambulance a better appraisal of the condition of the patient."

Ernest said what the defendants wanted to do was "impose a contract on us. There is no fee schedule approved by a government entity. This is a contract of their own making. I has not gone through any legislative process."

Larry Guggino, representing the village of Los Lunas and VRECC, said the system in the county would allow for call routing to Living Cross, allowing it to actually dispatch its own ambulance units.

Guggino said VRECC is actually a public safety answering point, a PSAP. The PSAP takes an emergency call then decides to either dispatch the call through its own center or route the call to the appropriate public or private entity for it to dispatch.

"The E911 Act requires setting up a PSAP. It doesn't require setting up dispatch," Guggino said. "It can do dispatch or routing."

Reviewing the number of calls for service to the VRECC, Guggino pointed out the entities that signed the JPA — the village of Los Lunas, city of Belen, village of Bosque Farms and the county — all paid for the operational costs of the center based on the number of calls for service generated in their respective jurisdictions.

"Living Cross had close to 12 percent of all the calls," he said.

Guggino acknowledged that while Living Cross did provide a service to the community by transporting sick and injured people, the sticking point to the anti-donation clause was the governing entity had to get some consideration for its service.

"In this case, what does the government get? Nothing. We have no right to control, that is given to the PRC," Guggino said. "We have no right to require shorter time responses. No right to require an increase in the number of units.

"We can't demand anything. The only ones who benefit are Living Cross and the person who is sick and needs medical service," he said. "Living Cross gets the benefits to have an income and the person gets to the hospital. The governing entity gets nothing."

Guggino argued that LCAS's obligation to answer calls was not on behalf of the government but rather the person who made the emergency call.

"That's the distinction," he said.

-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.