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Must city go to court?

March 07, 2003

It's a sad sign of the times in which we live that a handshake agreement on emergency rescue service that's worked since 1929 no longer suits the City of Martinsburg, W.Va. Taxpayers should ask their elected representatives how much the city's plan to take the matter to court will cost.

Since the 1920s, the city has had an agreement with the Ryneal Fire Company No. 1 to provide ambulance service. Using fees charged for emergency transports, Ryneal buys ambulances and other equipment, which are operated by city-paid paramedics. The city also provides insurance and license plates for the vehicles.

The arrangement apparently worked well until the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services learned that the Ryneal Company was not a city agency. Problems could arise, according to City Manager Mark Baldwin, because Ryneal is not a city-affiliated group.

The logical thing to do, given the fact that this arrangement has worked for decades and that no one is complaining about the quality of service, would have been to negotiate some compromise.

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Instead, the city has demanded title to all the rescue vehicles owned by Ryneal and all of the money the company has in the bank. The city, not Ryneal, should bill for ambulance service and collect those fees, Baldwin said. Ryneal officials feel otherwise, perhaps because they believe an arrangement of more than 50 years' duration shouldn't be lightly tossed aside.

Before too much money is spent in court, city officials should answer two questions:

- What happens if the city tells the state agency that it won't change this long-standing arrangement? If there are no serious consequences, why do anything differently?

- What efforts have been made to mediate this dispute? Court action should be reserved for those situations where all other methods have failed. Before taxpayers' money is spent on this dispute, citizens should be assured that it's the only way this matter will be settled.

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