Council takes up issue of city-run ambulance service

The Common Council began discussions about the possibility of creating a city-run ambulance service at a Public Safety Committee meeting on Tuesday. At the meeting, Fire Chief Michael Whitty answered questions about the idea, which he had first explored back in 2015.

The issue was a controversial topic during budget talks last year. The idea was introduced by former mayor Ann Thane just before her proposed budget was released, and projected revenue of approximately $600,000 from the service was included in her proposed budget. However the council had not approved bonding to purchase the two ambulance vehicles needed to actually operate the service. The council eventually removed the revenue line, as well as associated expenses, opting to make additional cuts and appropriate $160,000 from the fund balance to make up the difference. By forgoing the service last year, the city also retained approximately $100,000 contributed by GAVAC, the city’s current ambulance service provider, as part of a revenue sharing deal.

At the meeting, Alderman Jim Martuscello asked Whitty to describe how the fire department would respond to a hypothetical situation where the fire department received two emergency medical service calls coming from two sides of the city at the same time.

“I have a question for you, how many ambulances do I have?” asked Whitty.

“One. You have one ambulance,” replied Martuscello.

Whitty said that the city would respond to the first call with the city’s ambulance vehicle, however the second could be responded to by GAVAC under the region’s “mutual aid system.” However Whitty added that how exactly the city and GAVAC would coordinate with each other was an issue that would have to be worked out.

Currently the fire department responds to EMS calls with their own vehicle, often alongside GAVAC ambulances. However since the city vehicle cannot transport patients, they cannot bill the patient’s insurance company as GAVAC does.

Last year, Whitty solicited estimates from several medical billing companies to form an estimate as to how much revenue the city could realize by providing an ambulance service. The estimate took into account the fees taken by the billing company, as well as extra logistical and staffing costs. Whitty said that the city’s firefighters, of which the majority are certified as paramedics, have agreed to work extra hours at regular pay in order to run the service.

Estimated annual revenue and expenses based on estimated 1,866 transports per year based on 2015 interview with Chief Michael Whitty:

City revenues
Gross revenue $718,620.00
Billing fees ($35/call) -$65,310.00
Net revenue to city $653,310.00
City expenses
Personnel, medical director $85,000.00
Maintenance and supplies $15,000.00
Additional fuel $4,000.00
Additional vehicle insurance $4,000.00
First year interest payment on apparatus (for two ambulance vehicles) $3,000.00
Total first year expenses $111,000.00

 

Whitty said that he would seek updated quotes from billing service providers as well as consider a suggestion by Controller Matt Agresta to look at the cost of hiring a city employee to run the billing rather than hiring a third-party service.

The other issue discussed was whether a referendum is needed to change a line in the charter which was approved in 2004 by referendum and explicitly prohibits the creation of a city ambulance service. According to former corporation counsel Gerard Decusatis, the charter can be changed by the council without a referendum given that abolishing the section would not meet the criteria for a mandatory referendum under New York State’s Municipal Home Rule Law. However, current Corporation Counsel William Lorman said yesterday he is still looking into the matter.

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.