The future of the Tower Area Ambulance Service is too important to leave to haphazard leadership. As we report this week, the once highly-profitable TAAS is facing another year of financial questions, as well as a five-year cumulative deficit of more than $600,000 without a change in the business model of the service, according to a cash flow analysis prepared by this newspaper.
We prepared the cash flow analysis after Ambulance Supervisor Steve Altenburg repeatedly refused numerous requests by Mayor Orlyn Kringstad to undertake this critically-important financial planning. It’s clear why Mr. Altenburg was leery of such projections, since they highlight the concerns that this newspaper first raised back in 2017 when Altenburg convinced the city council to approve his paid staffing model. His plan was dependent on substantially increasing non-emergency inter-hospital transfers to pay the additional costs of payroll, rental of quarters, fuel, and truck maintenance. This newspaper suggested at the time that Altenburg’s projection of as many as 3-4 such transfers per week was unrealistic and that his plan would reduce operating margins to an extent that would make ambulance replacement difficult. Since implementation of the new staffing model in April 2018, the service has averaged 2.37 transfers per week. As a result, the service’s margins have fallen as we predicted. Our cash flow projection shows that the city will now, almost certainly, have to turn to bonding or some other form of borrowing, in order to pay for ambulance purchases over the next five years.
From all reports, Altenburg is a very good EMT, which makes him a valuable member of the TAAS, one that the city should seek to retain. But he has not been effective at the helm. In fact, since he assumed his current position in 2016, the ambulance service has lost members, seen its margins decline significantly, and may very well be in violation of federal labor law as it applies to overtime, which is a potential financial time bomb for the city.
There are also very real concerns about Mr. Altenburg’s personal behavior. As we reported two weeks ago, the only female member of the fire department, which Altenburg also oversees, has filed a complaint alleging a number of troubling incidents, including examples of blatant gender bias. Those allegations are currently under investigation, yet there are many other examples of Mr. Altenburg’s at-times troubling behavior which have become a matter of public record.
In 2018, he attempted to change the city’s charter to enable himself to serve simultaneously as ambulance director, fire chief, and the city’s mayor, despite the fact that numerous Minnesota attorneys general have determined that such an arrangement is unconstitutional. Mr. Altenburg seemed oblivious to the optics of such a move, which most people rightly viewed as tremendously self-serving.
Mr. Altenburg has also proven highly sensitive to criticism and responds in ways that, at times, border on bizarre. Late last year, after he apparently felt stung by a Timberjay story raising questions about the ambulance service, he set up a video camera in the city council chambers and proceeded to consume nearly an hour of a city council meeting on a disjointed, arms-flailing rant against this newspaper. He later traveled to a Vermilion Lake Township board meeting, and gave a similar, yet somehow even more bizarre, performance, complete with video camera. He also phoned a Greenwood township official at home last year and swore at him for posting a favorable comment online in response to a Timberjay editorial. He’s engaged in repeated defamation at council meetings against Mayor Kringstad and others and, according to the recent female firefighter complaint, he's spoken openly during at least one recent meeting of wanting to see both the mayor and publisher of this newspaper dead. Other credible city residents have reported that Mr. Altenburg has talked of “running the mayor out of town.”
This is not the behavior of a professional, nor a leader, and it was clearly a mistake by the former city council to elevate Mr. Altenburg to his current position as fire chief and ambulance director. He doesn’t have the financial and business expertise, thoughtfulness, or the common sense to do the job effectively. And he clearly doesn’t have the confidence of area township officials, none of whom have agreed, to date, to go along with his request for an increase in the ambulance subsidy— an increase that the city is going to need.
Perhaps with time, training, and more maturity, Mr. Altenburg could assume a position of authority with the departments sometime in the future. We are all works in progress and we hopefully all learn from our mistakes. Until that point, however, the city needs to look for more sensible leadership. It’s well past time for a change.