Legal concerns about a proposal for the city’s fire department to provide ambulance services were discussed at a Public Safety Committee meeting on Tuesday. The proposal was introduced last week by Mayor Ann Thane and Fire Chief Michael Whitty at the end of a meeting on capital projects. Thane included $660,000 in projected revenue from providing the service in the proposed 2015-2016 budget which was also released last week. The Common Council has yet to approve the funds to purchase the ambulances required to provide the service. The proposed service would replace GAVAC as the long-time primary provider of ambulance services in the city.
On Monday, an email sent from Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler on behalf of herself and the other three Republican council members, requested that Thane re-submit her proposed budget without the projected ambulance service revenue. The email also cited concerns that the city’s charter specifically prohibits the fire department from providing ambulance services, as well as concerns about a 2005 opinion issued by the State Comptroller in regards to revenues generated by city services.
Thane responded to the email by writing, “Per the Charter, you do not return [the budget] to me for amendments. You must now make your own changes.” Thane urged the council to approve the plan, adding “If you choose to refuse this budget, it will be up to you to come up with strategies to meet the shortfall.”
Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis addressed council members’ concerns at the meeting.
Alderman Ron Barone began the discussion and said, “I think that this whole thing has to go back to a referendum. It was brought out in 2004… and was voted down by a referendum…I’m not going to circumvent the population out there that said they didn’t want an ambulance service here [by approximately] 3000 to 1000. So in fairness, let it go back out to the public this November…let them tell us what they want to do. I don’t think it would be fair for five of us to make that decision. I don’t think we can anyway.”
“[The Corporation Counsel] has told us over and over we can’t change this charter,” added Barone. “But if we can change the charter tonight, then we’re going to change it all the way, by this council, we’ll change every single thing we don’t like. We’ll do it that way. Is that the way we want to run government? I don’t think so. And I think the only fair way to do this is to go to a referendum.”
In 2004, a referendum was held in which city voters approved a change to chapter C-76 of the city’s charter which now specifies “the Fire Department shall not engage in or otherwise provide ambulance services.”
“By local law, you can amend the charter,” said DeCusatis. He explained that certain changes required a referendum and other didn’t. “In this instance, which would be removing a restriction, it would not require a referendum. It required a referendum when there was a local law passed that put it in because it curtailed or abolished authority of elected officials, being the aldermen and mayor. So in its removal would not require a referendum.”
“Unless there is an absolute requirement for a referendum, you are not allowed to put things up for a vote,” added DeCusatis. “So there is no way to make this question a question for the voters in the form of a referendum because there is no authorized way to put that out.”
Barone asked DeCusatis to put his opinion in writing, to which DeCusatis agreed.
Alderman Richard Leggiero asked for further clarification as to why the issue had to go to a referendum in 2004.
DeCusatis replied, “The requirement for a referendum is that if you are curtailing or limiting the power of an elected official, it requires a referendum. That’s why it went to a referendum when it was imposed.”
DeCusatis said that the 2004 charter change limited the power of the mayor and council, in restricting the formation of an ambulance service.
“Well then guess what, we’re in limbo,” said Barone.
“No you’re not in limbo, you have the authority to pass a local law to change it or the authority to not pass a local law and leave it the way it is.”
Aldewoman Diane Hatzenbuhler brought up an opinion issued by the State Comptroller. “His opinion in 2005…said that the revenue generated cannot be used for the general fund,” said Hatzenbuhler. “It can only be used for the cost of operating the ambulance system.”
DeCusatis said that salaries of fire department staff, the costs of maintaining the public safety building, insurance, and the services of the controller’s office, the mayor’s office, and common council could all be attributable, in part, to the cost of providing the ambulance service.
According to Fire Chief Michael Whitty, the city’s fire department currently operates an emergency medical response vehicle, has staff trained in life support operations, and assists with emergency calls alongside GAVAC. However, the city cannot bill for the department’s services because their vehicle cannot transport people to the hospital. At the meeting, Whitty said that the fire department’s current labor costs were approximately $1.8 million.
“All you’d have to show is a third of the fire department’s time is related to answering emergency calls for health services,” said DeCusatis. “I would assume that they are probably over that based on the amount of EMT calls they get now versus fire calls.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Michael Demars, representing the Amsterdam Professional Firefighters Union, spoke in favor of the plan. He said the department was not looking to “pick a fight” with GAVAC, but pointed out that numerous localities were providing ambulance services, including Troy, NY, where he said that the additional revenues were helping the economic recovery of that city.
The council agreed to consider the issue again at a meeting next Tuesday.