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Proposed city ambulance service discussed

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.

About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of AnthemWebsites.com LLC which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

21 Responses to Proposed city ambulance service discussed

  1. Chris says:

    I believe that cities and city fire departments in general, should not provide ambulance services. Fire departments can and should provide Paramedic, (not EMT) services and specialized first response vehicles to supplement local ambulance services which should be used for patient transport. This concept works well for many, if not all large cities across the country. The city will not gain from providing ambulance services and the current system that is in place seems to work well in association with GAVAC.

    • Rob Millan says:

      “The city will not gain from providing ambulance services and the current system that is in place seems to work well in association with GAVAC.”

      -How? Exactly how does that “work well” to the city?

  2. Bobby says:

    Change in these antiquated cities in NYS is a scary and avoided thing. Progressive thoughts are often shot down for no appratent reason, other than fear of change and the attitude “we’ve always done it this way”. Well news flash, the way we’ve always done it isn’t working any more. Cities all across upstate are failing and ideas like city run ambulance services should have been employed years ago. Chris, you clearly have a special interest in this. Your statement is wrong and has been proven wrong by many large cities (DC, Baltimore, Fairfax, LA, Miami, Prince George’s County, Arlington, Detroit etc….).

  3. UncleWilly85 says:

    Comment #1: Thane included $660,000 in projected revenue from providing the service in the proposed 2015-2016 budget. ====> I would like to see the equation that she used to put together and come up with that figure of $ 600,000.

    Comment #2: Alderwoman 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. =====> Does that mean that the anticipated money could go to a line item in the proposed budget entitled something like “ADMIN CONT CONTROLLER” for example ???

    • Tim Becker says:

      Fire Chief Michael Whitty came to the meeting prepared to present specifics as to how he arrived at the estimated revenues. The council asked him to wait until next week to present the numbers.

  4. Mr. Smith says:

    They fail to mention the revenue given to them for every call they provide care enroute to the hospital. The Fire Dept obtains a percentage for every call they ride to the hospital in a GAVAC rig. Which contributes to less over head needed. I don’t believe the fire department realizes the cost it will take to run 2 ambulances. The up keep, and cost to stock the rigs. Constant up dating of equipment. Modern stretchers are over 10,000 dollars. Stair chairs are another 5. Both of which are required in every ambulance. Their current cardiac monitors are already out dated. New ones are roughly 30,000.

    The standard of care upheld by GAVAC is the highest in the region. The ambulances are of nicer quality than the fire department will ever be able to afford. They have some of the most sophisticated equipment, which the fire department will never obtain. The are equipt to perform procedures and administer medications that no other agency in the region can…. Would you rather have a “Jack of all trades” taking care of you or your family member? And by that I mean a fireman, who became a fireman to do just that, and who’s job focuses on many different things, and is average at all aspects of his/her job. Or would you rather have someone who’s only job is being a Paramedic, and who only specializes in that every single day they are at work?

    Also, you mention cities like Detroit? I’m not sure if you have heard of their financial situation over the last decade…. Also, many large cities seperate their firemen from the ambulance people. Although NYFD has ambulances, duties are separate, which in turn provides a higher level of care due to the ambulance people only focusing on patient care/procedure skills and ambulance duties.

  5. Mongo says:

    ” I would like to see the equation that she used to put together and come up with that figure of $ 600,000.”

    It’s based on the total amount billed Ex. 1700 calls x $750 per call = 1.275 million dollars billed. The collection rate is between 55 and 60 percent based on historical numbers over the last ten years. 600000 is a lower number because of medicaid reimbursement

    “It can only be used for the cost of operating the ambulance system.”
    How was the question framed when it was sent to the controller…when you look for a specific answer you get a specific answer.

  6. Mongo says:

    ” I don’t believe the fire department realizes the cost it will take to run 2 ambulances. ”

    Yes we Do….

  7. Jeff urbanczyk says:

    Then can someone explain how Saratoga Springs Fire Department made over a million dollars in their first year of ambulance service. Glens Falls Fire Department also makes well over $600,000 a year running a ambulance. Just wondering. Don’t believe me, make a call.

  8. The budget should never have been presented to the Council with imaginary figures requiring a change in the city charter. It should have been a realistic picture of working under the current charter that elected officials took an oath to uphold. The Thane administration has done nothing but spend uncontrollably with no regard for the fund balance. From the time Thane took office until today, the city’s economic picture has done nothing but deteriorate. The city need to make real cuts in the budget, stop creating new positions and function with what we have. Balancing the budget by profiting from taxpayers needing critical medical care is unconscionable. Cut out the transportation department that is draining city funds. Cut personal that are not essential. Force department heads to make the choices that decrease their budgets unilaterally until the budget comes under the tax cap. The idea of tax and spend has to go!

    • Tim Becker says:

      To my understanding, patients are currently billed either directly or through their insurance companies when they require ambulance service. Right now, the revenue goes to GAVAC. Under the proposed plan, the revenue would go to the city instead. There would be no difference to the patient. If that’s the case, I see nothing “unconscionable” about that.

      • Rob Millan says:

        “The Thane administration has done nothing but spend uncontrollably…” – where? where is this ‘uncontrolled’ spending spree?

        “The city need to make real cuts in the budget, stop creating new positions and function with what we have.” – here’s an idea: instead of ‘cut’, like the local fake mantra, why don’t people ever throw out the ‘grow’ word? You could always cut the nose, but you’ll spite the face. For every dollar anyone proposes to cut, I saw the same person should propose how to potentially grow by two.

        And where are these ‘new positions’?

      • Luis says:

        Rob,

        Since your asking “And where are these ‘new positions’?”
        Some of the new positions created under Mayor Thane.
        *I may be incorrect in some titles:
        The Community and Economic Development.
        Department Head position.
        *Recreation Dept. Assistant Director, community organizer…
        Code Enforcement Officer.
        was? Mayor Assistant.
        Just saying.

      • Luis says:

        I should of stated the Community and Economic Development Department and its Director/Dept. Head, was not an active or budgeted Department before Mayor Thane. And no just because I mention these positions I do not mean any I’ll will. Peace

      • Profiting from the misfortune of others IS unconscionable. It will be interesting to see just where the Fire Chief got his numbers. Medical billing and fee collecting will have to be contracted out. Was that cost figured in the total profit? Overtime will be oncurred with transporting 24/7. What about patient transfers to and from nursing homes or hospitals in Albany? Fuel, maintenance and emergency medical equipment, new employee salaries, health insurance, workers compensation, training. Will two ambulances be enough? Thane putting this in the budget as if it was a done deal with a change in the charter was not only underhanded but irresponsible. I hope the Common Council decides on a budget “as if” there were a new Mayor in 2016. That is actually more likely to happen than firing GVAC and changing the charter. “Mayor” DeCusatis already tried changing the charter and we all know how that fiasco ended.

      • Tim Becker says:

        I think most of your points, questions and opinions are valid, even if I don’t 100% agree. But I have no idea why you continue to assert that billing for medical transportation is somehow “unconscionable” and equating it with “profiting from the misfortune of others.” GAVAC is currently doing this right now. Is GAVAC’s operations unconscionable? Why is it any different if the city does it? Maybe you’re talking about the whole healthcare industry in general?

    • Rob Millan says:

      So you do not believe that an Economic Development office is needed so Amsterdam can at least try to keep up with everyone else around?

  9. UncleWilly85 says:

    Lets just imagine that this grandeous plan goes thru with the city going into the ambulance business. Now we will have the choice between city ambulance vs GAVAC for an ambulance call (two companies McD’s vs BK for example). So if you call 911 the city ambulance arrives I am going to say right? But if you call GAVAC on 842-1777 you will get them to respond to your needs. Will the fire dept still respond with any vehicle? Will GAVAC still reimburse the city X amt of $$ like they do today or no re-imbursement be given at all??

  10. Charlie K. says:

    I think it’s high time the people who push the “spend uncontrollably” meme need to start coming up with concrete examples. I can’t think of one example where the mayor’s spending had any type of significant negative impact on the budget. In fact, I don’t believe she’s ever spent over the amount allocated to her budget line item.

    Sorry, but squabbling over a $900 car while ignoring massive cost increases in health and retiree benefits is not sound governing.

    It would also be nice, for a change, to hear actual alternatives. Then again, one can’t offer an alternative plan if they don’t actually have a plan.

  11. Luis says:

    Charlie,
    While you must be referring to Rob Millan’s comments above. I would like to give just one of many examples of waste by Mayor Thane.

    Back about 5 years ago Mayor Thane spent $35,000.00 on a Redalert Module for the building and code enforcement dept. The software and hardware comprised of 4 specialty laptop’s programs and left ready for use by Art Ianuzzi. The laptops have since disappeared yet never put into service.

    The software was suppose to track all building permits creating a system where expiration dates could be programmed in as well as inspections dates and so on. The same for Plumbing and code enforcement. Code enforcement was to be able to track housing complaints. Etc.

    This software and hardware $35,000.00 is a failure as it never worked and has since been scraped.

    Now we hear about an APP that will do some of what the redalert program was to have done and of course the Arty. General monies for a data base that will never specifically help Amsterdam. I spoke to the Schenectady representative on what those monies were for.

    So tell me what has wasting taxpayer money done to advance the building and code enforcement offices. Please remember I know this inside information because I worked their at the time and also know that it’s failure was gagged ordered quite.

    • Luis says:

      Now if you want to talk about buying the correct software and system to help expedite code enforcement and inspections.

      Yes Mayor Thane was told by the code enforcement officers before purchasing the Redalert equipment that there were better programs and systems out there for code enforcement because the Redalert was really only made for the Fire Dept.

      She said we have the money budgeted and it was used. So who cares if she never went over budget!