Undermining squad doesn't serve citizens

The bitter divide between the Voorheesville Area Ambulance Service and the village of Voorheesville has widened and deepened over the many years that we’ve been covering the dispute.

We believe the problems started in 2007 when the village wanted the ambulance service to collect insurance money from patients it transported, and the volunteers objected.

“It took approximately three years to get the ambulance service to start billing,” said Mayor Robert Conway this week. “That cost the taxpayers a lot of money.”

“It was a hard bullet for us to bite, but we did it,” said Denise Garrah, the VAAS board chairwoman, this week; now, the recovered revenues pay for 60 percent of the VAAS’s budget, which totals about $90,000 annually.

Thirty-nine percent of the remainder is paid for by the village and 61 percent by the town of New Scotland. (In round numbers, that means the village pays roughly $20,000 and the town roughly $30,000 for the service.)

This is a bargain since the annual salary for a single emergency medical technician is in the neighborhood of $55,000. The VAAS has no costs for salary or workers’ health insurance. The single biggest expense, at about 30 percent, is for insurance, followed by equipment, which can be expensive (one defibrillator battery alone costs $300). The squad has two ambulances, a 2002 and a 2010. The national standard for replacement is six years, Garrah said, noting, “We try to get 12 years out of a rig.”

The squad answers about 250 calls annually. Each basic life support call costs about $550. This is a necessary service for a community to have.

The latest turn in the escalating battle is Mayor Conway told VAAS members at the village board’s August meeting, “We are exploring the possibility of using another service.”

The plan is to replace the squad’s emergency medical services with re-trained village firefighters.

The proposal has caused concerns. We just wrote on our sign, “Don’t worry, we’re still open as usual,” said Garrah on Friday.

When we called the fire chief, David Gannon, and asked what the fire company thought of the proposal, he said to check with the mayor. We responded that we knew what the mayor thought, since he proposed it; we wanted to know what the firefighters thought. Gannon said to check with the mayor.

We tried one last time, asking Gannon if there were many firefighters willing to take on the extra duties and training; Gannon responded, check with the mayor.

Conway said this week the plan is “not set in concrete.” He did not know how many firefighters would volunteer for the extra training and duties but said the fire department’s membership was more “robust” than the ambulance service’s with 50 volunteers. Garrah said the VAAS currently has 24 volunteers.

The proposal, Conway said, is “really driven by financial concerns,” elaborating, “We’re concerned about the future viability of the ambulance service.”

The plan makes no sense. Voorheesville is a small village, with fewer than 2,800 residents. It already has a cadre of dedicated, trained volunteers who provide medical services, as Voorheesville volunteers before them have for over six decades.

Fire companies and ambulance squads that depend on volunteers, around the area and across the country, are crying out for more help.  The training involved is necessary and arduous for both services.

Garrah said each person on the Voorheesville squad has received at least 100 hours of training and, every three years, must be certified by taking a state exam at an accredited agency.

To expect a small community to come up with a duplicate set of volunteers is both unrealistic and foolhardy. It’s particularly hard for a suburban bedroom community like Voorheesville, where most people commute away from home to work.

In fact, volunteers were in such short supply that last October, the county stepped in with a pilot program, which is still underway, where paid sheriff’s department workers cover Voorheesville ambulance calls from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every week day. (The pilot program is at no cost to the town or village; it gets funds from patients’ insurance companies.) The Voorheesville volunteers cover nights and weekends.

Why not use the trained and dedicated volunteers who are able and willing to serve?

We urged in 2010, as the village and the VAAS wrestled over a contract, that New Scotland be responsible for 100 percent of the subsidy. The town’s fiscal year matches the squad’s — running from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 — while the village fiscal year runs from June 1 to may 31.This means the schedule for paperwork from the squad is more in synch with the town’s schedule. Also, the town has preferred getting its money up front in order to run, which the town provides, rather than at the end of the year, which the village has preferred.

At the July village board meeting, Garrah said, “Our hope is, to lessen your burden, let us go and let the town take care of us” as other towns’ ambulance services are administered.

The contention at that meeting centered on reserve funds the VAAS has for vehicle replacement, and maintenance, including a new roof.

At the village board’s June meeting, when the board reluctantly agreed to a late contract, Mayor Conway said, “I feel like I can’t continue to subject the taxpayers to the current blackmail situation. This is not a willing partnership. We’re being held hostage here.”

He did not like the $8,000 stipulated in the contract for a VAAS reserve fund.

“They’re stealing,” said Trustee David Cardona, the village’s budget officer who voted against the latest contract. “It’s wrong,” He asserted a new roof for the squad’s building would cost $8,900, not the $20,000 VAAS had said it would cost.

Blackmail? Stealing? Being held hostage?

Aren’t these over-the-top accusations for public officials to be making?

In January, when officials from the village and town boards met with squad members, Voorheesville Ambulance Captain Ray Ginter said the reserve funds are used to buy a replacement ambulance about every 10 years and to pay for larger building repair projects. He said the service puts a small amount of money in savings each year so it can afford to pay for larger expenses without affecting the consistency of its annual budget. He also said not funding the reserves on a regular basis could eventually impact operation.

The village did something similar, turning down an initial proposal from its fire department to buy a new truck — “We had no money to pay for that truck,” Conway said this week — and, instead, he said, setting aside money so a truck could be bought with cash this year.

We fail to see how undercutting the VAAS by creating an alternate service in town would be good for the villagers the board represents. The squad would be short nearly a third of its budget and would still have to have the same number of volunteers on call to respond in emergencies.

A picture of August Berger hangs in the VAAS building. “He first met with fire department members in Redmen’s Hall,” said Garrah “This was in 1952. They decided a separate entity was needed…If Augie were here today, he’d say, ‘Stop the nonsense.’”

The town is willing to work with the VAAS, and the squad could continue to serve the town, village included, as it has so ably for more than half a century.

“That’s always been an option. If we could help accommodate that, we would,” said Deputy Supervisor Douglas LaGrange this week, echoing Supervisor Thomas Dolin’s comments from two years ago. Noting he was just one of five town board members, LaGrange, speaking in Dolin’s absence, stated, “We have said in the past we would. I haven’t heard anyone voice any opposition.”

“But,” LaGrange went on, “the village, legally, has to decide to release the ambulance; it’s their call.”

Asked this week why he won’t make that call, Conway said, “If I thought the ambulance were fiscally responsible, I would.” He noted that Voorheesville residents would still be paying for the VAAS through their town taxes.

Asked if he didn’t think the town board would be able to see that the VAAS were fiscally responsible, Conway said, “I don’t think the town is as concerned as I am.”

It’s good the mayor is concerned about finances. At any time, but particularly in the last four or five years since the Great Recession, elected representatives of the people need to be mindful of how precious taxpayers’ dollars are spent.

We urge the village to let the ambulance service go. We trust the town’s representatives to work with the VAAS in a fiscally prudent manner. Both in terms of finances and manpower, that would best serve the residents of Voorheesville.

Duplicate services cost more. The fire department would have to buy more insurance, buy costly specialized equipment, and buy and maintain ambulances, too.

“Keep us in mind if you need a used ambulance,” Ginter quipped at the August board meeting.

But, we’re not laughing. That comment sums up the problem. The village board’s retaliatory move would undermine the current ambulance service without ensuring a viable replacement.

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