By Alan Montgomery
Special to The Rural Messenger
After 40 years of harmony among its participating members, the Haven Community EMS now seems like a marriage on the rocks, complete with a custody battle over who will control the emergency medical service.
Jointly owned by a group of local entities – the townships of Haven, Yoder and Sumner, and the city of Haven – the service has prided itself in providing prompt, professional emergency care and ambulance transport to its service area, with about 200 emergency runs per year.
But it is weathering troubled times.
“I heard the city is trying to take it over,” said a rural Haven man, during a chocolate malt break at the Bull’s Eye Grill in Yoder. He asked not to be quoted by name. “I have a business,” he explained.
Emil Savaiano, a retired history teacher in Haven with 31 years of service at Haven High School, said he was trying to find out what was happening to the EMS service. Savaiano’s background includes 10 years as a volunteer EMT with the ambulance service and 10 years on the Haven EMS board, ending about six years ago.
“I’m trying, but I can’t find out much about what is going on,” he said. “Why would the city want to get control of it? I think for the city, it would be the biggest mistake they could make.”
“The Haven EMS board for decades has handled many inquiries and problems each year that the city may not want to add to its workload,” he said, “and it worked just fine.”
Suddenly, a lawsuit
The Haven EMS is a unique creation, evolving over its years of existence.
It started as the union of two entities — the city of Haven and the Haven Township. An agreement was forged in 1977 to create a cost-sharing, quick-responding, professional ambulance service.
It has faithfully provided emergency medical services to those communities since its founding according to local residents. About 20 years ago, Sumner and Yoder townships were welcomed into the union, so they, too, could have the life-saving benefits of a local EMS.
The city of Haven and the three townships shared the costs and management of the ambulance service in levels that reflected their population sizes, in accordance with its 1977 charter.
Now the city is in a legal battle with the townships, apparently seeking full control of the service. The city has provided only vague information about why they filed suit against their township partners.
The city, in its 2017 suit, said “A controversy had arisen about how the ambulance service should be structured and what the relationship between the parties should be, including funding.” And it said the arrangement “was loosely organized” and not in compliance with state requirements.
In November 2017, the city filed its action in Reno County District Court, alleging that the 1977 agreement with Haven Township was no longer valid. The city said two later agreements, dealing with planning and financing a new EMS facility in Haven, now were in control.
Haven lost that lawsuit in March 2019, when Reno County District Court Judge Trish Rose ruled against the city, declaring the 1977 agreement still valid. The city had argued that later agreements, in 2013 and 2017, seemed to indicate that the partners were operating under a modified plan. The 2013 agreement included a phrase that said the three townships would “contract for EMS services with the city…”
In her two-page, March 10 ruling, Judge Rose denied the city’s motion for a summary judgment against the townships.
“The 1977 agreement has not been terminated,” Rose wrote, and the townships’ motion to keep the agreement in force was sustained.
The city of Haven, after reportedly hiring an attorney from Wichita to assist City Attorney Larry Bolton in the matter, has notified the State of Kansas it intends to appeal to the Kansas Court of Appeals, seeking to overturn Judge Rose’s ruling.
Reached at his home by phone Wednesday night (Aug. 7), Haven Mayor Adam Wright declined to answer any questions about the pending litigation, or why the city filed the action in the first place.
Wright said the city wanted only the best for the Haven EMS and area residents.
“It’s about emergency medical services to support the citizens, in the city and the townships,” he said. “It’s a part of the quality of life.”
Beyond that, the mayor said, he would be unable to comment further.
Haven City Clerk Leslie Atherton said EMS questions would be referred to the city attorney if they were sent by email to the clerk’s office.
The Rural Messenger sent queries, including:
Q: The 1977 bylaws of the Haven Community EMS, then called the Haven Community Ambulance Service, said the city of Haven would share control of the service with its township partner (then it only was Haven Township). Is the city now challenging that clause, to get full control of the service?
Bolton’s written reply: The City’s position is that the April 1, 2013, agreement superseded all arrangements which may or may not have existed before that date. The issue of Control will be determined by the outcome of the case now on appeal.
Q: Has the Haven EMS director been asked to attend city department head meetings, even though he does not appear to be a city employee?
In a lengthy answer, City Attorney Bolton said, “The person acting as EMS director” was asked to provide certain financial information to the city council so a budget could be prepared. (Paramedic Tony Troyer has been EMS director for 21 years.)
Q: Has the City of Haven stopped sending its appointed Haven Community EMS board members to meetings of the Haven Community EMS board?
Bolton: “The appeal process is well underway. If from the city’s perspective the result is favorable and the lower court is overturned, conduct by the city inconsistent with the appellate court’s anticipated decision should be avoided.”
EMS board shackled
The city’s decision to stop its EMS board appointees from attending the Haven EMS board meetings presents problems. The City of Haven is allocated four board members; two are from the Haven Township; Sumner and Yoder townships each have one, for a total eight members.
Without the four City of Haven members, that leaves only four at the EMS board meetings, which means that they cannot achieve a quorum, or legal majority, to conduct official business.
The decision to pull their board members was made at the March 5, 2018, meeting of the Haven City Council. The motion passed unanimously.
Haven EMS Director Troyer has a full schedule. He also serves as a division chief for Reno County EMS. He has an office in the emergency wing at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center.
Troyer said he did not know why the City of Haven was taking legal action against the townships in the EMS matter.
“I really don’t know what the deal is, or why they want to have control,” he said. “I am just kind of caught in the middle, between the city and the townships. It makes it kind of hard to conduct business when four of eight members walked out.”
The service has always tried to replace ambulances every 10 years. But the two ambulances now in the EMS service building in Haven are 10 years and 21 years old, respectively. The older one is a Ford that still runs well, but it is starting to require more maintenance and has some oil leaks.
A capital outlay fund may need an infusion from the city and the townships. It currently holds about $70,000, and a new ambulance costs $200,000, he said.
But nothing can be done with the EMS board in limbo.
The Haven EMS service is running on a meager staff, with eight EMTs and two paramedics, counting Troyer. They are spread thin to provide daily 24-hour service, but there are no plans now to hire more people.
“I have been waiting to see the outcome of this litigation,” he said, “to see if I need to put people through school. I don’t want to spend money needlessly if we are not going to be here.”
Former Haven Mayor Paula Scott, who served on the council from 2008 to 2017, said the Haven EMS is an essential service.
“I think any community that has a viable EMS service should consider it one of its most valuable assets. Haven is fortunate that we don’t have to depend on anyone else.”
Not a clue
Scott said she had no information about the dispute between the city and the townships.
“I have no clue what is going on,” she said. “I think the concept of a cooperative agreement, between city and township, that concept is always good.”
Dale Kaufman, who recently retired from his farming operation in Yoder Township, serves on the Haven EMS board. He is concerned about the City of Haven’s lawsuit but was heartened by the recent court ruling in favor of the townships.
“Our goal now is to get the ship straightened out and create an independent governmental agency which has its own taxing authority and elected representatives, in a specified (EMS) district,” Kaufman said. “And keep providing good service.”
Savaiano agreed with that sentiment.
“I think the service does a good job. Of all the years I have been involved with it, I can never remember them missing a call. I think the city should leave them alone.”