Transit Authority funding of EMS training against state statute

Grays Harbor Transit can no longer fund emergency medical services personnel training in the county, according to a decision by the State Auditor’s Office declaring such contributions are against state law.

Since the transit authority was formed in 1983, about $7 million have been transferred from transit to fund county EMS training, “even though (the transit authority) neither owns or operates or contracts to provide those ambulance services,” said audit manager Bryson Bristol at an auditor’s exit conference with the Grays Harbor Transit Authority Board of Directors on Tuesday.

According to the state audit’s findings, “The Authority incorrectly interpreted its authority to contract for the provision of ambulance services for the transportation of the sick and injured. The Authority believed it had the authority to contract for the training, coordination and support services of emergency medical providers who are not Authority employees.”

Further, “Since the beginning of 2019, the Authority has transferred $254,032 to a private organization to cover that private organization’s training program. Because these payments are for purposes outside the scope of the public transportation function, these payments constitute a gift of public funds and violate the state constitution.”

The audit cited two sections of the Revised Code of Washington as the basis of the decision to say the longtime distribution of funds from the authority to EMS training was illegal under state law.

Brian Snure, attorney for the Grays Harbor EMS Council, a nonprofit responsible for training and coordinating EMS providers in Grays Harbor and North Pacific counties, said “the council strongly disagrees wit the auditor’s opinion supporting the finding.” He said the council disagrees with the analysis of the laws regarding a transit authority’s ability to fund EMS training and that the council will submit a request to the auditor to reconsider the decision.

“This has a significant impact on the EMS Council in terms of finances,” said Snure. “I think where the auditor has kind of missed the boat is in the premise of the argument that the EMS (Council) is a private organization. It certainly is nonprofit, but it’s not private, it’s public, authorized by statute as part of the state EMS and trauma care plan. It plays a small but significant role in that plan.”

Snure said the EMS Council is a “quasi-municipal entity” and emergency medical services is a public issue that needs to be funded.

Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave said he was under the impression that a major selling point of the campaign to establish the transit authority in 1982 was a provision that funding from the authority would be used for EMS training.

“It seems to me that when they were campaigning for creating the transit authority it was put out to the public that EMS funding was part of that campaign, and that clearly makes a difference here,” said Schave. That argument was also used by the authority in a written response to the auditor’s finding.

County Commissioner Vickie Raines said subsequent ballot measures to increase sales tax funding for the transit authority did not contain any mention of EMS funding, but she understood that perception may have remained.

In 2000, the state audit questioned the way the transit authority was funding EMS, but then cited only the lack of a written contract and specific language to address the way the funding was spent. In response, the transit authority drafted a contract that provided for reimbursement of expenditures for specific training and equipment, which seemed to satisfy the auditor’s office until the 2019 audit.

“It would be my recommendation that we comply with the auditor’s findings and move beyond where we’ve been and look at other opportunities for funding Grays Harbor EMS,” said Raines. “I’m not saying transit needs to look at options, but our local leadership and EMS need to look at ways we can determine appropriate funding for training of our fire personnel.”

Justin Leighton, Executive Director of the Washington State Transit Association, said the association agrees with the auditor’s findings regarding the funding of Grays Harbor EMS. He said the association “holds dear” the laws that govern how tax revenue is collected and spent by transit authorities.

The laws are “very clear on what you can collect revenue for and how to expend that revenue, and that is on public transit,” he said. Jill Nordstrom, grants and community partnership manager from the state Department of Transportation, said she echoed Leighton’s comments about the auditor’s findings.

County Commissioner Randy Ross said he felt the authority was “being punished for doing the right thing” with the finding by the auditor’s office.

“I would like to see this not be a finding but just a documented concern and don’t do it any more and move on from there,” said Ross, “but I find it interesting that it wasn’t addressed a lot sooner than this.”

Tina Watkins, assistant director of local audit for the auditor’s office, said the auditor’s program manager responsible for reviewing the level of reporting and the finding was decided in part because of “the significant amount of interest in this item,” and said she was “comfortable with the reporting level.”

The Grays Harbor Transit Board of Directors currently consists of the three Grays Harbor County Commissioners (Raines, Ross, and Wes Cormier), the Mayor of the most populous city in the county (Schave), the Mayor of a city with population more than 5,000 (Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler), and the Mayor of a city with population less than 5,000 (Elma Mayor Jim Sorensen).