Members of the St. Clair Ambulance District board of directors said this week they voluntarily have given up their free provided cellphone service that has caused a stir in the community.
The decision announced during Tuesday’s June board meeting means that according to the board members, nine of the 10 personal cellphone lines the district currently have no longer will be used by board members or spouses. The only individual to continue to use a phone through the district will be retiring Chief Bill Hollo.
Board Chairman Tony Hinson confirmed the decision and the lines affected on Tuesday.
The Missourian reported last month that all six of the ambulance district’s board members, two of their spouses and Hollo’s wife have district-provided cellphones paid for by taxpayers and through fees collected by the district through services provided. The service costs local taxpayers about $6,000 annually.
Board members also receive a $100 per-month stipend as compensation for being board members, which includes attending meetings. They will continue to receive that payment, which totals $7,200 per year. Hollo earlier told The Missourian that amount legally could be much higher.
During Tuesday’s meeting, it first was mentioned that Hollo’s wife and board members Tim Davis and Danny Shadrick already had stopped using their district phones. Then, during the chief’s report portion of the meeting, Assistant Chief Jamie Clayton stated that Hollo currently is talking with AT&T, the district’s cellphone provider, to renegotiate the contract between the two entities.
The change in the cellphone plan is “to eliminate board members having cellphones,” Clayton said, adding that he has referred to the issue as “Phonegate.”
Earlier, Hollo had told The Missourian that the board’s cellphone policy has been in place for several years.
Other ambulance district board members are Secretary Bill Hinson, Jennifer Erbes and Brian Hinson. Brian Hinson was not at Tuesday’s meeting.
When asked by The Missourian why the board has decided to give up its cellphone use, Bill Hinson said it was because of the “pretty shoddy newspaper article” that brought the practice to light.
Erbes then quickly pointed out that “we’re all volunteering to give them (phones) up.”
When specifically again asked why the decision was made now, Bill Hinson said it was because of the newspaper story and the way the word had gotten out.
“It (story) made good people look bad,” he said. “We do everything we can to be financially responsible and you come in and tear it down.”
Words and phrases like “half-truths,” “sensationalism” and “demonized” then were used against the paper.
“This is what sells papers,” Davis said.
While the meeting remained in session, board members continued to attack the newspaper, oftentimes raising their voices. The most vehement were Bill Hinson and Erbes.
Clayton defended the board members, saying there are two of them — Tony and Bill Hinson — who have more than 30 years of experience with the district. Both of those men are licensed paramedics who go on emergency calls when needed, he said. They do not get paid for providing that service.
“There are second-generation individuals serving here,” Clayton said. “In five years here, this board of directors has done more for this town than anything.
“I’m very proud of this board.”
The board members also defended themselves, both during and after the meeting.
Tony Hinson said he has been on the ambulance district’s board of directors since 1995. Bill Hinson said his tenure began in 1998. Erbes said she has 11 years of service on the board while Davis and Shadrick both said they came on board in 2005.
“There are countless things we have done that people don’t know about,” Davis told The Missourian after the meeting when the conversation continued. “I don’t want to toot my own horn, but if something needs to be done, we just do it. We don’t go bragging about it, we just do it.”
Davis, who owns Certified Collision and Service Center in St. Clair, said he routinely donates his time as well as parts and maintenance for minor repairs and service on district ambulances. The Hinsons said they routinely go on calls if needed. Shadrick said he is a licensed ambulance driver. All of them also said they help in the office and with other matters as needed.
“We get involved in these things, but people don’t see that,” Davis said.
The board members also explained that they had a hand in the district’s remounting or refurbishing of three ambulances over the last four years that remain in use. They said work they put in and decisions they made regarding those remounts saved district taxpayers more than $200,000.
“They get called in to help at the last minute, and they come in and help with whatever we need,” Clayton said. “It can be in the middle of the night, during the work day, whenever.”
Bill Hinson said that during the winter, he routinely and voluntarily drives one of the district’s four-wheel drive vehicles and is on call if an emergency arises in inclement weather and the truck is needed for assistance.
“I got on this board to help ensure quality people deliver quality emergency services,” Shadrick said. “You do what is necessary. We’re giving the best service we can give to ensure that top patient care. That’s what we work to do here, to provide that optimum patient care.”
“And we continue to do it, the volunteering,” Bill Hinson said. “We have a hand in everything because we want this place to be the best.”
“If called upon, we want to have the best people, the best equipment and the best service,” Davis said. “That’s why we’re here.”
“We go above and beyond our job here,” Erbes said.
In May, Hollo confirmed to The Missourian that district cellphones have been provided to any board member and his or her spouse who requested it and the district picks up the tab each month. However, the decision to allow the phones was the board’s and not Hollo’s.
In all, the district has 20 cellphone lines. Phones are inside each ambulance and are used by emergency medical technicians to communicate and to send test results to area hospitals. EMTs do not have their own district-provided cellphones. Hollo said two additional lines are for air or SIM cards.
Clayton does not have a district-provided cellphone.
The district’s monthly cellphone bill has totaled about $1,000. A check of the district’s records provided by Hollo show that from November 2012 through April 2013, the average cellphone bill was $1,004.32. The district also has a separate $400 monthly bill for in-house telephones and a fax line.
During the six-month period in which records were obtained, the seven ambulance lines and two SIM lines averaged about $347 per month of the total $1,000 bill. Hollo’s cell usage adds about another $140 per month.
That means that during those recent six months, board members and their spouses accounted for slightly more than half of the district monthly cellphone bill.
During four of the six months, the cellphone used by Erbes’ spouse cost more than $100 per month, including a $169.26 total in January. During that month, that cell line’s bill was about $36 higher than any other line used by the district.
On Tuesday, Hollo said that the May cellphone bill was about $850 and that the decrease was due to his wife, Davis and Shadrick not using their devices.