Squad should be open about expansion plans

The Altamont Rescue Squad has a job to do, and does it well. The oldest volunteer rescue squad in the state, founded in 1937, it serves the village of Altamont, part of the Hilltowns, and Guilderland Center as well as providing backup to Guilderland, Rotterdam, and Voorheesville.

We have a job to do. Since 1885, we’ve covered not only Altamont but also a large portion of Albany County. Our job is to inform the public on matters of interest.

We learned that the Altamont Rescue Squad was planning to expand its building, which sits on the town side of the village line on Route 146.

Our Guilderland reporter, Anne Hayden Harwood, covered the Dec. 18 Guilderland Zoning Board meeting, during which the ambulance squad made the case for expansion — the current building is a non-conforming use and the proposed addition would push the building envelope further.

The proposal includes a bedroom for overnight staff and meeting space as well as a third bay so that the town’s emergency medical services truck, which also uses the building, doesn’t have to be left outside, running to keep medicines inside it at needed temperatures.

This is a matter of public interest. We got several calls from village residents after the Guilderland meeting. No concrete plans were presented, and villagers wanted to know more. One asked about sidewalks, another about lighting, and a third about building configuration.

Hayden Harwood called for several weeks, leaving messages at the squad building, trying to find out more about the proposal so we could write about it and so inform the public. She got no response.

Then the matter came before the village board as it approved a report in January from the Altamont Guilderland Referral Committee, suggesting that the project receive a special-use permit. It’s a sign of good government for two bordering municipalities — in this case, the village of Altamont is located within the town of Guilderland — to have a committee that looks at issues affecting them both.

Our village reporter, Jo E. Prout, then picked up the torch, trying to shed light on the project. She was able to reach Maureen Ramirez, the past president for the Altamont Rescue Squad. Ramirez said she would not discuss the project — including plans for the building, the process by which the engineering firm was chosen, and cost of the expansion — until after the project receives final approval from the town.

Ramirez said the squad is a private not-for-profit entity.

While not-for-profits area generally not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, case law indicates the ambulance service may be, according to Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

Freeman cited a 1980 decision by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, that held, in applying the Freedom of Information Law, no distinction is made between a volunteer organization on which local government relies for performance of essential public service and an organic arm of government when the volunteer organization is the channel through which services are delivered.

Like the Kimball fire department, the Altamont Rescue Squad is the channel through which essential government services are delivered. The squad is also supported by taxpayer dollars. The town of Knox contributed $25,400 for 2013-14. Guilderland budgeted $493,833 for ambulance services in 2013-14.

Ramirez e-mailed Prout, with copies sent to our Guilderland and Hilltown reporters, that the matter “pertain[ed] to their coverage area more than yours” and also accused Prout of “forg[ing] ahead without consideration to the volunteer agency you are writing about,” believing her to be “hot on a story” “with little or no consideration for the oldest rescue squad in the state of New York or the volunteers who run it.”

Ramirez stressed that we should not print a story about the proposed expansion until after the plans were approved. We published a front-page story on Jan. 30 with as much information as we could find about the project; most of our information came from Dean Whalen, an architect with CSArch and also a village trustee, whose firm performed a feasibility study on the project a year ago.

We believe it is important for citizens to be informed about this project, or any other project, before final approval is granted. This gives planners a chance to hear concerns and shape a project that will be pleasing to the community.

Ramirez wrote, “We have followed all appropriate guidelines within the town of Guilderland to appear before the Zoning Board, so naturally any neighbor that has a vested interest in what was happening with our building has been properly notified.”

The Guilderland Zoning board is scheduled to discuss the proposal at its Feb. 19 meeting. We urge those with concerns or questions to attend that meeting.

We know just from the calls we have received that there are other residents — beyond those in close proximity who must, by law, be notified — who have questions or concerns.

A newspaper is a good way to inform the public. We urge the ambulance squad to take advantage of the opportunity to tell local residents about its project on our pages and our website. We reach the public that is paying for the squad, in the Hilltowns and in Guilderland. We also reach the village residents who will see the expanded squad building as part of their everyday lives for years to come.

The signature line, at the bottom of Ramirez’s e-mails, says, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”

We, too, will try again, and continue trying, to obtain and publish the information the public deserves.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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