Driver's seat

Jan 27, 2014 By Steven R. Peck

The new ambulance chief haggled for more money; now he has to deliver

Fremont County is having to pay more for its new ambulance department director than it had in mind. Given the circumstances, however, that probably was inevitable.

The past year hasn't been a banner period for county government at the department level. The museums, library, solid waste and county attorney divisions struggled with assorted challenges throughout 2013. The ambulance department did as well, with the tumultuous departure of its longtime director amid a lingering budget disagreement and a major change in personnel policy that sparked sharp disagreement.

Those divisions probably played a role in the decision by the Fremont County Commission to look outside the department for a new director rather than hire from within. It's not that there weren't any qualified candidates to be found inside the department, but, rather, that an outsider probably stood a better chance of coming in above the fray and starting with a slate cleaner than an insider could have.

Once that decision was made, though, a new reality presented itself. An outsider with the experience required to run our ambulance department also had enough experience to recognize that this job wouldn't be a cakewalk for a new director, especially at the beginning.

The ambulance department has continued to do its job amid the budget battles, directorship uncertainty and other issues. That is testament to the mission and the personnel performing it, but any outside director candidate was bound to have some trepidation about stepping into the middle of a situation that hasn't exactly been tranquil over the past year.

Even after the budget finally was passed, the ambulance division still confronted the implementation of, and the effects of, a controversial decision to phase out the largely volunteer EMT force in favor of a corps of professional employees. There were some real battles fought, and hard feelings take awhile to heal.

Hiring an outside man who was not part of that dustup is a logical move for the county, but the new director will walk into an environment with at least the potential to be testy.

Conditions such as these create something of a seller's market for job applicants. The county conducted a nationwide search and found its man in Joseph Zillmer. But that man wanted more than the county was offering, and he held out for a salary roughly 15 percent larger.

In the end, he got it. The county came to understand what Zillmer knew all along. This was an important hire for the county. Zillmer, a man with years of experience in emergency management, knew that full well. He and the county agreed that he was the guy, and that put Zillmer in the driver's seat when it came to haggling over terms. And when you are in the driver's seat, no one can blame you for doing a bit of steering.

That transaction now is complete. It took a split vote to settle it, but Zillmer will be paid $63,500 instead of $55,000. It's time now for the county commission, the ambulance department, its law enforcement partners and the Fremont County public to give Zillmer their support as he works to get this vital public serve and public safety department on its best possible footing.

As for Zillmer, he will be under both spotlight and microscope, the former because he takes over a department whose troubles have made headlines for more than a year, the latter because he held out for substantially more money than the county wanted. That will invite added scrutiny, and he will have a bigger performance burden than he would have otherwise.

He will need to deliver, but if he does, then that extra $8,500 will seem like a bargain.

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