TOWER— The city council here, on Monday, unanimously authorized an investigation into a host of complaints that have been filed in recent months against city ambulance director and fire chief …
TOWER— The city council here, on Monday, unanimously authorized an investigation into a host of complaints that have been filed in recent months against city ambulance director and fire chief Steve Altenburg.
The decision came toward the end of lengthy council discussion about the status of the ambulance service, and it came nearly six months after a female member of the city’s fire department lodged a written complaint of gender bias and other questionable behavior by Altenburg.
Council member Mary Shedd referenced that August 2019 complaint as one of several that the council had promised to address but never did. “We’re failing in our duties,” said Shedd. “We should address these issues, out of the need for due process.” Shedd noted that guidance from the League of Minnesota Cities indicates that cities have a responsibility to investigate almost any kind of complaint lodged against an employee. “According to the League, we need to investigate written complaints, verbal complaints, rumors, or even anonymous tips,” she said.
The city received at least four complaints last August about Altenburg’s conduct and Shedd said she’s seen additional complaints since.
Shedd said any investigation should be fair to all involved, including Altenburg, who has been accused of abusive conduct by a number of individuals in either his capacity as ambulance director, fire chief, or his tenure on the city’s planning and zoning commission. Altenburg has routinely denied all allegations against him.
Shedd’s comments were initially met mostly with silence from the rest of the council, but Mayor Orlyn Kringstad eventually spoke up. “I think your comments are valid,” he said.
After some prodding from council member Dave Setterberg, Shedd turned her thoughts into a motion, which council member Rachel Beldo seconded for further discussion. Shedd said she didn’t think members of the council should be part of the investigation and the rest of the council concurred. Instead, they authorized Shedd to contact city attorney Mitch Brunfelt to have his firm conduct the investigation on behalf of the city. “It should be done swiftly,” said Shedd, who suggested it might be completed in time for a special meeting of the council later this month.
Shedd made her case after the council voted to place letters in the personnel files of Altenburg and firefighter and emergency medical responder Mike Larson over Larson’s recent decision to take his son on a ride on a rescue snowmobile owned by the city’s emergency services. When questioned about the incident by clerk-treasurer Victoria Ranua, Larson had indicated he was using the snowmobile to burn off “old gas” and that Altenburg had given him permission to bring his young son along for the ride. Altenburg confirmed that he had given Larson approval to bring his son, telling the council it had been allowed in the past.
But councilors clearly weren’t pleased by the prospect and the potential liability it posed for the city in the event of an accident. “This was wrong,” said council member Sheldon Majerle.
Ranua questioned whether Larson had the safety certificate required by state law in order to operate a snowmobile, noting that the state requirement doesn’t provide any exemption for emergency responders.
While it appears that the city has no clear policy on the practice, Shedd and other councilors agreed that “common sense” should prevail and that bringing a child along on a ride on city equipment was inappropriate.
The council action on the snowmobile use came following extended discussion on a report on the city’s ambulance service which the council had directed Altenburg to prepare.
As directed previously by the council, Altenburg’s report provided basic inventory information, but turned to speculation on the ambulance service’s finances and sometimes derogatory editorial comment on his disagreements with the current city council, stating that the city’s financials “have been in complete disarray for the last six months.” He suggested that the current financial figures for the ambulance may be under-reporting revenue by as much as $21,000.
Altenburg, himself, under-reported the ambulance service’s expenditures, claiming that “true expenditure are $418,000” in his report, which was littered with grammatical and typographical errors. Yet the latest financial printout from the city, which was included in the council packet, shows total 2019 expenditures at $513,682. Altenburg, when questioned by this reporter during the meeting on the nearly $100,000 discrepancy, said that we wasn’t including the $65,000 in expenditures in 2019 in partial payment for the city’s new ambulance. But Altenburg acknowledged that he does include township contributions to pay for ambulance replacement in his operating revenue projections.
Council members took issue with some of Altenburg’s other claims in his report, including his statement that current dissatisfaction with the state of the city was discouraging people from joining the ambulance service. The service has also seen a rash of resignations and retirements in the past three years, which has depleted the ranks of responders.
When pressed for documentation to support his claim, Altenburg offered nothing definitive, other than verbal reports he’s heard from others. Councilor Shedd noted that she’s heard a different reason. “I hear people say they don’t want to work for you,” she told Altenburg.
Shedd also took issue with Altenburg’s assessment of staff utilization, in which Altenburg significantly downplayed the involvement of the service’s paid-per-call (PPC) staff compared to the paid on-call (POC) crews. While his own data showed that at least one PPC staff person responded to a total of 419 runs, or 76 percent of all calls, Altenburg wrote that “PPC staff only made up 33 percent of all runs.” Instead, Altenburg emphasized the participation of the POC staff in runs, noting that at least one POC staff member turned out for 369 runs, or 67 percent of all runs. While Altenburg did not mention it in his summary, his own data shows that fewer than two POC staff took part in 346 runs, or 63 percent. That’s despite the fact that two POC staff are supposed to be on duty 24 hours a day, five days a week, or approximately 71.5 percent of the time.
Clerk-treasurer Ranua presented concerns about the current ambulance replacement subsidy as expressed to her by area townships. In a detailed memo to the council, Ranua noted that townships want to see a clear accounting from 2017-2019 of the fund balance in the ambulance replacement account as well as “concise reasoning to support the rate increase from $15 to $18.75-$29.30. Altenburg insisted that the account is legally-restricted and the city never took funds from it, but Kringstad indicated that funds had been tapped from the account at various times in the past, and had since been made whole.
Township officials also indicate they want a better understanding of the financial benefits, or lack thereof, from the increase in non-emergency, inter-hospital transfers. An analysis provided by one of the townships indicated that the service, based on ambulance mileage alone, generates $9.37 per mile on emergency calls and just $4.69 per mile on transfers. While transfers pay more than the typical emergency call, they also typically involve substantially more driving. That’s one reason why some small ambulance services take few if any transfers.
The townships are also requesting that the city’s ambulance commission, which includes township representatives, receives a business plan that’s updated annually, quarterly bank statements for the replacement fund, and the mileage and records of maintenance for all of the ambulances at their quarterly meetings.
Ranua noted that members of the ambulance commission seemed to be unaware of some facts about the management of the ambulance replacement fund and suggested that better communication might help improve their understanding.
After some discussion, the council agreed to scrap the former ambulance subsidy contract and directed Ranua to work with the city attorney and the ambulance director to write a new agreement that takes the townships’ comments into account.
In other action, the council:
Approved the consent agenda, including continuing education for EMTs and the clerk and deputy clerk, authorizing application for two federal emergency services grants, and a land acquisition request for a tax-forfeit property on S. Second St.
Heard from Ranua that the city is on its own for the next several months for handling of its planning and zoning.
Approved maintenance totaling up to $2,500 for brake repairs to the soon-to-be retired Unit 2 ambulance.
Approved a loan request for interim financing for the city’s water plant project totaling $253,000.
Approved expending an estimated $7,700 to replace corroded bases for the decorative streetlights on the city’s main street. The project may also include the conversion of the lights to LED.
Selected the Timberjay as the city’s official newspaper for 2020.