The Hawaii Department of Health is on the verge of taking an official position against the politically charged proposed merger of Honolulu’s Fire and Emergency Services Departments, according to the DOH division chief.

Linda Rosen, Chief of Emergency Medical Services and Injury Prevention System Branch, told Civil Beat Tuesday night that a formal letter to Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle is awaiting Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s approval.

Such a letter would carry a lot of weight because providing emergency medical care is actually a state function, and the city is the state’s contractor to handle those responsibilities on Oahu. But that could change if DOH isn’t satisfied with the city’s operations.

“Within my department, that is the agreement that we’re prepared to recommend against a merger, but the governor hasn’t signed off on it yet,” Rosen said in a phone interview. “I believe that there’s a recommendation and the director is awaiting the governor’s approval of that.”

But while the state has a lot of power in the situation — the threat of losing around $30 million in funding would obviously impact any decision — Rosen said the state needs to tread carefully. She said the letter’s not a done deal yet, though it could be sent soon.

“The idea is that it’s not a unilateral decision on the city’s part,” she said. “We’ve just tried to be careful to not be too intrusive. It’s always a delicate balance between the state and the city.”

After sitting quietly on the shelf for months, the consolidation has emerged as a campaign issue in the Honolulu mayor’s race.

Civil Beat reported last month that paramedics and emergency services leadership were unhappy with Kirk Caldwell, who said in campaign literature that merging the two departments would allow EMS workers to receive better training and better equipment and would help them save lives.

In recent weeks, the Honolulu Ethics Commission initiated an investigation into the procurement process that led to a merger-friendly organization getting the $175,000 contract to study the merits of combining operations. Documents from the Fire Department show that scores were manipulated after the fact.

Peter Carlisle has moved cautiously on a merger, criticizing Caldwell for wanting to rush ahead without properly contemplating the impacts. Caldwell, in turn, has said Carlisle’s dragging his feet on an idea that would save lives and money. At the KITV-Civil Beat debate last week, Ben Cayetano waded in, saying he does not favor a merger at this time.

Rosen said she personally has had concerns about the report ever since it was produced, calling it “incredible.” But until recently — until the mayoral politics “elevated” the discussion into the public sphere — there was little need to publicly rebut the report or formally advise against a merger on DOH letterhead, with the governor’s approval.

“It wasn’t until the recent politics that it became elevated to the point where we needed to make an official statement. It’s been dragged out and it’s probably time to settle it,” she said. “I thought it was safe to say that it’s no longer my personal opinion. We shouldn’t consider the merger at this time.”

The rationale behind the recommendation is simple, according to Rosen: “From the state’s point of view, what’s the compelling reason, especially in absence of a plan?”

Read Civil Beat’s previous coverage of the Fire-EMS merger:

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