Tensions between Voorheesville officials and its local ambulance service were reignited after the mayor voiced concerns in the village’s seasonal newsletter.
Voorheesville Area Ambulance Service members and residents packed the village Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday, Sept. 24. More than 40 people filled the chairs and overflowed into the hallway. The ambulance service rallied for supporters to attend the meeting in response to Mayor Robert Conway’s comments in the village’s one-page, double-sided newsletter, “The Village Report,” mailed to residents. The majority the newsletter consisted of Conway restating financial concerns the board has with its historic ambulance service provider.
Ambulance company members contested several statements made by Conway in the newsletter, which he said is aimed at making residents “aware of the facts and to, hopefully, clear up any misconception or misinformation.”
Conway wrote of five instances in which the board felt the company didn’t act as “fiscally prudent” as the board preferred, including prior reluctance towards revenue recovery, losing an ambulance, inability to staff for 24/7 coverage, insisting on continued reserve account funding and not agreeing to include language in the village’s contract to return a portion of its assets to the Voorheesville if the company dissolved. The last is the most recent contention resulting from this year’s contract negotiations, which was completed recently.
VAAS recently submitted its proposed 2014 budget to the village, which is reduced 4 percent from this year’s budget. Conway, in the village’s newsletter, said the expenditure reduction was “good news,” but suggested the decrease should be greater.
“We must bear in mind that the squad is on duty 35 percent fewer hours and answering an estimated 70 percent fewer calls,” Conway wrote. “Picture what would happen if you told your employer that you would be working 35 percent less hours but still expected 96 percent of your pay.”
He encouraged everyone to voice concerns or ask questions by attending board meetings, or contacting him, and that call was answered Tuesday.
“We’re losing very, very good people because they don’t want to deal with any of this,” VAAS Treasurer Laura Blow said at the trustees meeting. “We are not wasting any taxpayer money. We’re not stealing money or blackmailing or sticking it to the village. We’re doing the best we can on a volunteer squad with what we have to work with.”
VAAS First Lt. Kate Odell read aloud the company’s response letter to Conway’s comments, in which it contested several statements he made.
Conway said costs associated with the ambulance service in the village’s 2005-06 budget approached around 42.5 percent of the total taxes collected. Odell claimed this was inaccurate and said its proposed 2014 budget would be approximately 2.6 percent of the village’s budget.
Voorheesville’s adopted 2013-14 budget totals $2.12 million and increases spending by around $140,000, or 7 percent. The village is budgeted to raise more than $275,000 from taxes.
The company’s proposed budget for next year is nearly $90,250, which would be approximately 32 percent of real property taxes levied for 2013-14. The general fund — excluding water, sewer and special districts — totals more than $1.4 million.
Odell also contested the loss of an ambulance, resulting in $40,000 in taxpayer money being essentially thrown away.
VAAS retained a broker used for two prior ambulance purchases, but this time the broker took a current ambulance and cash deposit as down payment and pocketed the revenue. The broker died soon afterwards, leaving an estimated loss of $40,000, according to Conway.
Odell said the ambulance manufacturer reduced the cost of the new vehicle purchased, so the “actual loss” was $23,345. The company tapped reserve funds to cover the loss.
“Upon advice from our attorney at the time it was determined it would be in the best interest not to pursue the lost funds,” Odell said. “The cost of litigation would likely exceed any monies recovered.”
Odell also said the “most recent” review of ambulance calls revealed 37 percent of their calls had occurred during weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., which is when the county Sheriff’s Office covers calls due to staffing issues at the local company. She added around 41 percent of calls occurred at night and 22.5 percent occur on weekends.
When asked by a resident, VAAS Board of Directors Chairwoman Denise Garrah said the company had around 150 calls last year in the village.
After the meeting, village officials remarked they had been asking for call figures for around three years, but never received anything. The estimate that claimed 70 percent of calls were from the daytime, weekday periods, were provided by Conway were from the Sheriff’s Office.
The company’s budget has remained fairly flat from 2002 to 2013, with a low of just below $82,000 to a peak of almost $99,500. VAAS’s vehicle reserve account had $165,000 in it this year, Conway said, and $25,000 is reserved for capital projects.
“We are volunteers, so we never earn a paycheck,” Odell said. “Our total budget reflects the cost of operating a BLS/EMS agency. If we had no calls for a given year … our budget would remain the same for that given year, with the exception for fuel.”
Marty Finkle, an officer with the New Salem Volunteer Fire Department, criticized board members for the “dollar and cents” issues and said there would be “less response” if VAAS were dissolved.
“There is nothing where you guys want to put a dollar ahead of a life, and that is what you are doing here,” Finkle said. “We’re going to sit there and watch somebody bleed longer if Voorheesville (Area Ambulance Service) disappears, there is no question.”
Kathy Martin, a veteran member of the ambulance company, expressed support for the village’s contention over reserve funds, which was the primary sticking point in budget negotiations.
“I think it is a little ridiculous to argue over,” Martin said. “I have to agree with the village that there is no reason why they need to continually give that amount of extra money at this time. If the money is needed all they have to do come to them and they can work having money … for an extra ambulance.”
Martin said the 10-year ambulance replacement recommendation expressed by company representatives also isn’t necessary, because the ambulances don’t get used every day and don’t sustain the same amount of wear and tear.
One of her biggest concerns, though, is what each side is saying about the other publicly.
“In my opinion, it has gotten really into a pissing contest,” Martin said.
Due to declining volunteerism, she said a committee should be established compromised of ambulance, village and community representatives to tackle what the future of ambulance services should be in the village.
“The time has come that volunteering isn’t what it used to be and sooner or later we are going to have to make some changes,” Martin said, “either by the way we do things with the existing ambulance or with some other kind of ambulance service.”
Conway after the meeting said he would support establishing an advisory committee.
Contract negotiations are expected to start soon between the company and the Town of New Scotland, with the village planned to join in on talks. The contracts expire at the end of the year.