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News investigation: Alpena Township conflict delayed service, revenue

News File Photo An ambulance backs into an Alpena Township Fire Department bay in May in this News file photo.

ALPENA — A financial consultant hired by Alpena Township quit in July, saying he wasn’t comfortable with apparent internal conflict within township leadership.

That alleged conflict may have cost the township of thousands of dollars that were instead paid to a Montmorency County agency because certain Alpena Township Fire Department services are on hold pending a financial review.

Township Supervisor Nathan Skibbe said the main concern of the township Board of Trustees is in finding facts about the cost of running its Fire Department’s non-emergency transfer service. The service — using township ambulances to transport people with non-emergency medical needs, such as travel for dialysis or downstate testing — was originally established as a money-maker for the township, but Skibbe said the consultant was hired to make sure the service actually made money.

“The most important thing is not the conflict, if there is any,” Skibbe told The News. “The most important thing is making sound business decisions by the board.”

In February, the board ordered the Fire Department to suspend long-distance transfers of more than 30 miles, pending a review of the department’s finances.

The review was delayed about five weeks when J.R. Henry, an out-of-state certified public accountant, refused to continue working with the township. He later agreed to resume the review.

Henry’s decision came after Skibbe, in an email to the CPA obtained by The News through a Freedom of Information Act request, expressed concern about a phone meeting between Henry and township Fire Chief Dave Robbins that also included Mark Hall, former captain for the Alpena Township Fire Department and current county 911 director.

Hall — who was heavily involved in the creation of the township’s transfer service — was invited to the meeting by Robbins because of Hall’s experience with the transfer service, Robbins said.

Skibbe, in the email, called Hall’s presence a “major issue” and forbade future communication with Hall because Hall is no longer a township employee. Skibbe would not elaborate in a later interview with The News.

“I wanted to make myself clear moving forward to you and Chief Robbins that outside involvement is not to continue,” Skibbe wrote in an email to Henry on July 17.

The following day, Henry withdrew from involvement with the audit.

Henry said in an email to Skibbe he was uncomfortable “with constraints that you have outlined and with the apparent internal conflicts and biases which apparently already exist among parties about this topic.”

The township also failed to tell Henry about several previous evaluations of its transport business, and much of the information he was asked to evaluate already existed, the consultant noted.

Skibbe said he had no comment on the conflict the CPA cited as the reason for his departure.

“If there was a misunderstanding, it’s obviously corrected,” Skibbe said, noting Henry agreed to resume work for the township at the end of August.

Henry declined to explain why he returned to working for the township.

A third party was brought in to review the fire department’s books one other time since Skibbe took office, but that party didn’t do a very good job and the review was inconclusive, Skibbe said. The fire department has also done internal reviews of its finances.

Skibbe called the board’s decision to stop the transfers proactive, because, without a professional financial analysis, township leaders didn’t know if the service was making or losing money.

The township averages 10 long-distance transfers a month, according to Robbins. According to a formula devised by the Fire Department, those transfers garner an average profit of $1,600 or $1,700 per run, which takes into consideration the cost of wages and benefits, medical supplies, fuel, and other expenses, according to Robbins.

Since April 1, the department has turned down 24 requests for long-distance transfers from the hospital and other care providers, meaning the potential for $38,000 to $40,000 in lost revenue for the department, according to Robbins’ figures.

Township officials can’t know if revenue has been lost — or, perhaps, saved — by the stoppage in transfers until the financial review is performed, Skibbe said.

Robbins said he believes most of the long-distance transfers that would have been performed by the township since February have been handled by Tri-Township Ambulance, a service out of Atlanta.

A representative of Tri-Township said the business can’t confirm whether any of its calls for service would ordinarily have been handled by Alpena Township.

Long-distance transfers by the township fire department are on hold pending Henry’s report. The department still conducts transfers within a 30-mile radius, after a brief hiatus from that service during May and June.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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