HARLINGEN — For 15 years, police have been enforcing a city ordinance protecting the South Texas Emergency Care Foundation’s service area, warning and citing ambulances entering the city limits to offer emergency and non-emergency transport.
For nearly two years, City Commissioner Frank Puente has pushed to amend the ordinance to allow other ambulance companies to enter the area, offering residents a choice when it comes to calling for emergency help as well as non-emergency transport.
Meanwhile, the previous city commission strongly stood behind STEC, which has provided the city ambulance service since local leaders founded the nonprofit company 40 years ago.
On Tuesday, Puente said STEC’s ordinance might be wiped off the books.
Now, he and members of the commission’s new majority are calling for changes that could include scrapping the ordinance that’s protected STEC’s service area since 2007.
“I want to open it up to allow other ambulatory services to conduct business in Harlingen to provide a choice to citizens,” Puente said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Randy Whittington, the attorney representing STEC, said he would defend the city against a lawsuit claiming its exclusive rights to provide EMS services for the city are unlawful.
“If they’re going to threaten a lawsuit, so be it,” Puente said.
Ordinance protects STEC’s operations
On the new commission, Mayor Chris Boswell and Commissioner Michael Mezmar continue to stand behind STEC.
“I think it is a premier organization,” Boswell said. “The city is lucky to have them as an emergency service provider and we should not do anything to interfere with the service they’re currently providing.”
While competition within the lucrative non-emergency transport business could help bring down some ambulance rates in town, it would eat into STEC’s operating revenues, officials say.
STEC officials have said they count on non-emergency transports to offset the cost of providing emergency services.
“They are claiming they’re going to lose revenue and cut jobs,” Puente said. “It’s not the taxpayers’ problem whether they’re going to lose revenue. As a commissioner, it’s my fiduciary responsibility to make sure we’re able to save the taxpayers money.”
COVID-19 calls tying up ambulances
The coronavirus pandemic has helped Puente make his case for competition within the city’s lucrative non-emergency transport business.
Since the pandemic’s outbreak here in March 2020, more calls have tied up ambulances, leaving some waiting for hours outside hospitals’ emergency rooms.
“To me, the more serious issue is the well-being of our constituents in the midst of this next wave of COVID,” Puente said. “If there were more services provided, then some of the ambulances waiting in line could relieve each other to answer other calls.”
Offer for Willacy ambulances rejected
Last week, city commissioners met behind closed doors with City Attorney Ricardo Navarro’s law firm to request “legal advice and counsel regarding amendments” to STEC’s ordinance.
Instead, officials offered “negotiations,” Puente said.
“There was no real legal advice,” he said Tuesday. “It was more negotiations.”
In response to his push to open the door to other ambulance companies, officials offered to allow Willacy County’s Emergency Medical Services team to come into town, Puente said, adding he rejected the offer.
For years, an agreement has allowed Willacy County’s ambulances to offer STEC “mutual aid” within the city limits, he said.
“Willacy County providing backup is not a new thing,” Whittington said. “This has been particularly true during the pandemic.”
On Tuesday, other commissioners declined to respond to messages requesting comment on STEC’s ordinance.