Corporation Counsel weighs in on legality of ambulance service

Corporation Counsel William Lorman said on Tuesday that in his opinion, a referendum is not required under New York State law in order to change a line in the city’s charter which prohibits the city from running an ambulance service.

Last year, Fire Chief Michael Whitty provided revenue estimates for a proposed two-vehicle city ambulance service that ranged from $500,000 to $600,000 dollars annually. The common council decided not to proceed with the service last year, however the current council agreed earlier this year to look at the proposal again.

The city is currently prohibited from running an ambulance service due to a change in the city charter approved by public referendum in 2004. Council members asked Lorman earlier this year to give his opinion on whether another referendum is required to remove the restriction.

Alderman Chad Majewski, who is the public safety committee chair, said he will continue to work with the fire chief to come up with revised estimates for the proposed service and said he hopes to see the service incorporated into next year’s budget.

“We’ve asked the chief to continue working while we were waiting [for Lorman’s opinion] because no matter what we were going to do, we were going to have to come back to the public. So I believe the chief is still compiling numbers and getting things together.”

Mayor Michael Villa said he is open to the idea but wants to see a thorough study justifying the service first, and would like to see cooperation with GAVAC, the current ambulance service provider for the city.

“The next step is to see if the council wants to change the charter. If they do, then I think my recommendation is that we do a thorough study to provide the public with all the information,” said Villa. “I’ve met with the chief on this. We want to be able to show the pros and cons and comparisons and be prepared, as we should be, to show that this is the right thing to do or its not the right thing to do. Look at all the facts. If it’s viable and it shows a revenue stream and we can partner with GAVAC, then I’m open to looking at it and doing that.”

The city’s fire department currently responds to emergency medical calls along with long-time ambulance provider GAVAC. However because the department does not operate an ambulance vehicle, they cannot transport patients to the hospital, and therefore cannot charge the patient’s insurance company, as GAVAC currently does.

Lorman’s opinion concurs with former corporation counsel Gerard DeCusatis’ opinion when the issue came up at budget time last year. DeCusatis had said that under New York State law, a referendum is required when elected officials’ authority is restricted, as was the case in 2004 when 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.” However, DeCusatis said that no referendum was required to remove a restriction, and furthermore a referendum can not be held if none is required.

Tim Becker

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