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At one time, Pat Cantelme made no secret of his interest in vying for ambulance work in the city of Phoenix. Two years ago, he briefly discussed the matter with a New Times reporter, saying that he saw Phoenix as a potential market for his private ambulance company, PMT. (See "Ambulance Chasers," October 27, 2005.)
But Cantelme has since backed away from his remarks. In a January letter to every member of the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, which includes firefighters in Glendale, Peoria, Tempe, and Chandler, Cantelme wrote that the idea "that PMT wants to take over emergency ambulance service in the city of Phoenix" is a "total crock."
Neither he, nor anyone at PMT, Cantelme wrote, "has talked to a single person from the fire department, the city or the union about getting involved in 911 ambulance service in Phoenix."
That may be true, technically. But four years ago, Cantelme did talk to someone about getting involved in ambulance service in Phoenix.
Steve Hart, a lawyer at Lewis and Roca and former director of the Arizona Department of Gaming, says that he had detailed discussions with Cantelme about that very issue for months and that Cantelme was confident he could secure a contract for the work. In a phone interview last week, Cantelme confirmed the discussions.
A little background: Cantelme's business partner, Bob Ramsey, founded Southwest Ambulance. When Ramsey sold Southwest to Rural Metro, and was later ousted from the company, he signed a non-compete contract barring him from vying for 911 ambulance contracts in the Valley for several years.
By 2003, the time was up, and Ramsey made it clear: He intended to compete for his former company's turf. With the well-respected Cantelme as his partner, he had a good shot at getting local fire departments willing to, at minimum, hear his pitch.
As a lawyer and sometime lobbyist for Southwest, Steve Hart wanted to prevent an ambulance war and, naturally, prevent Cantelme and Ramsey from invading Southwest's turf. Through much of 2003, Hart says he and Cantelme discussed a new joint venture.
Draft documents for that proposed venture, "Newco," show that it was specifically intended to target ambulance work being handled by firefighters in Phoenix Cantelme's old union. "The proposed 'partnership' with the City of Phoenix Fire Department will involve entry into the 911 market, which is now served by City-owned ambulances, and an offer of effective, privatized ambulance service," according to the preliminary statement of terms. The statement also touts Cantelme's "experience, skills, and contacts."
Cantelme explained to him, Hart says, that every fire department has to handle numerous "behavioral health" calls. Calls from crazy people. Or from elderly people with simple needs, who know the fire department comes for free. Maybe they need a ride to pick up a prescription. Or they have slight nausea and need to make sure it isn't a heart attack.
"There was a certain range of calls that Pat felt very confident that the firefighters didn't want to do," Hart explains.
Thanks to Cantelme's work as union president, the Phoenix ambulance service is protected by city charter. Phoenix couldn't hire a private ambulance company for emergency calls without a citywide vote.
But the charter does allow a private company to handle "supportive services" and who's to say that "behavioral health" calls don't fit that criterion? Hart says Cantelme saw it as a matter of getting the company's foot in the door: "He felt that his position was consistent with the charter, and that we'd work to doing emergent calls over time, to then step up into the higher level."
(While confirming the negotiations with Hart, Cantelme says he would have taken any privatization plan to city voters. "And the fire department would have to support it, or we wouldn't have entered an agreement," he says.)
In May and June of 2003, Cantelme, his partner Bob Ramsey, and Southwest CEO Barry Landon all signed off on a preliminary version of the plan. New Times has obtained documents commemorating the agreement, complete with all three signatures.
But in the fall, things collapsed. Hart says he'd believed that Cantelme was operating with the blessing of his former union. "To me, Pat made it clear that he was keeping [Union President Billy Shields] in the loop and that they, the union, were okay with it," Hart says.
When Hart questioned a friend who was actually in the union, however, the friend told him something different: Despite Cantelme's representations, the firefighter said, his men wouldn't want to relinquish any part of their turf to a private company.
Alarmed, Hart scheduled a meeting with Shields in October. Documents show that, prior to the meeting, Shields was given a copy of the preliminary agreement. Shields didn't seem surprised to hear about the plan, Hart recalls. "His position was, 'I know Pat's talked to me about this.' But when I pushed, he had to admit he didn't know where the union stood on the issue." (Cantelme insists he never discussed the proposal with his friend.)
Not long after, negotiations collapsed. Hart says that he and Southwest decided to walk away from the deal.
Cantelme says he is no longer remotely interested in securing a contract with Phoenix. "Number one, we already have more business than we can handle. Two, this thing has become so controversial there's no way I would touch it."
But the 2003 negotiations could come back to haunt Shields. Chris Medrea is a former official with the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, the state organization associated with Shields' union. (Two weeks ago, Medrea retired from his job as a Mesa fire captain.)
In the last year, Medrea has written letters that have been widely distributed to union membership, calling out Shields for failing to support the Southwest Ambulance employees who are his union brothers. He's accused Shields of supporting his friend, Cantelme, instead. (Shields, who has angrily contested Medrea's allegations, did not return calls for comment.)
Despite Hart's assertions, Cantelme says he never discussed his plans for the Phoenix market with his friend Shields. He argues that the fact that Hart met with Shields, and Shields saw the preliminary statement of terms about the plan to outsource Phoenix ambulance service, shouldn't be a black mark against Shields. "It's not like it was secret, or separate from what was going on with the Phoenix Fire Department," he says.
But Medrea disagrees. "You can't blame Pat Cantelme for going for this work he's a 10-year-old memory," he says. "But Billy Shields was the union president. He had knowledge this was going on. How do you stand idly by when you know something like this is being discussed? That seems pretty anti-union to me."