AMSTERDAM – City officials say Amsterdam’s city-operated ambulance service is on pace to exceed the $350,000 in revenue projected for the new program for the 2018-19 fiscal year.
The 2018-19 fiscal year will be the first full year the city has operated an ambulance service staffed by its fire department, an experiment aimed at raising revenues to help Amsterdam’s fiscally distressed city budget.
Amsterdam has been dealing with a budget deficit of approximately $8.4 million built up over years since about 2008.
Amsterdam received its certificate of need from the state to operate the service in July 2017, giving the city ambulance service first priority in responding to emergency calls inside the city boundaries.
Fire Chief Michael Whitty said the ambulance service has collected $588,000 in fees since it began operation in August 2017.
City Controller Matthew Agresta said the ambulance service only operated for about 10 months during the 2017-18 fiscal year, and collected $391,000 in fees, which exceeded the $350,000 in revenue projections for the 2017-18 budget.
Halfway through the 2018-19 fiscal year, city officials say the service has brought in about $197,000 in fees, putting it on pace to collect nearly $400,000.
Creation of the ambulance service in Amsterdam has been controversial, in part because the service takes away some business from the already established Greater Amsterdam Volunteer Ambulance Corps. The neighboring city of Johnstown has begun the process of creating its own ambulance service in part because it has seen the revenue increases generated by city-run ambulance services in Amsterdam and in Glens Falls.
“This is one of the ideas that we’ve put together to raise revenue,” said Deputy Mayor James Martuscello, who represents the Fifth ward.
Third Ward Alderwoman Irene Collins said she needs to see more detailed documentation from the city before she can evaluate the effectiveness of the program. She said she also believes accurately budgeting revenue from the service will always be difficult.
“One year, you might take 400 calls, the next you might take 200. It’s always going to be a guess,” Collins said.
Fourth Ward Alderman David Dybas said he has been skeptical of city operating an ambulance service since it was first suggested. He said he wants to see a complete breakdown of how much operating the service costs before he can evaluate whether the program has been successful.
Dybas said he also doesn’t know how large the gap may be between what has been billed by the service and how much has been received. He said he doesn’t know how much the labor costs, equipment costs or maintenance costs may cut into the revenue collected from the ambulance service.
“To use a highly technical term, I have seen ‘nada’ from the city on the ambulance service,” Dybas said. “You would think there would be all kinds of financial statements on this, and I’ve seen nothing.”
On Tuesday the common council passed a resolution to hire Syracuse-based Simon’s Agency Inc. to try to collect about $20,000 in unpaid fees to the city for the ambulance service.
“This is the problem, people are getting checks for reimbursement and they’re not paying us. That’s why we had to go to a collection agency,” Martuscello said. “That’s been the biggest downfall, that I’ve seen since we’ve started this ambulance service.”
Agresta said the two major costs associated with the ambulance service are the approximately $52,000 in annual lease payments the city makes for the $217,045 ambulance vehicle it secured for the service. The city has a five-year lease for the vehicle, with an option to buy it for a nominal fee at the end of the lease.
Agresta said the city also pays a fee of 10 percent of the amount collected to a billing company called MultiMed, located in Baldwinsville, Onondaga County, to collect fees from the patients transported by the service.
Whitty said his department allocates about $42,000 per year for medical supplies, including bandages, medicines and other equipment. He said his department was already spending about that much before the creation of the ambulance service. But now, the supplies are now being used for the ambulance as well as the other vehicles of the department, he said.
Whitty said the personnel costs for the ambulance service are covered by the salary and benefit costs of employing the firefighters who staff the service. He said the ambulance has not resulted in overtime costs for the city.
“We are at times operating with less guys since we started the ambulance service. We used to maintain a minimum of six men on duty, but now we’re doing it with five,” Whitty said. “There have been no additional positions created because of the ambulance service.”
Mayor Michael Villa in November 2017 issued an order that the fire department no longer call-in staff, paying them overtime, to fill for absent workers to maintain a six-man minimum staffing. Villa’s order was legal because the six-man minimum staffing is not a requirement of the city’s fire department union contract.
Whitty said Saturday he did not have the exact number of ambulance calls the service has responded to so far during the 2018-19 fiscal year. But the entire fire department in 2018 responded to 2,970 calls, a 10 percent increase over 2017. He said a substantial portion of the increase in calls can be attributed to ambulance service calls.
“I think [the service] has been doing a fantastic job. It has exceeded expectations,” Whitty said.
Whitty said he’s considering proposing the city acquire a second ambulance during its 2019-20 budget process.
“I think in the right scenario it would be justified, absolutely,” Whitty said. “This ambulance is a little more than a year old. As vehicles get older, they need to be in the shop a little more frequently. A second ambulance would keep us in business if this one went down for repairs.”
Villa said he’s been pleased so far with the ambulance service program. But he said he will need to see a detailed breakdown of service call data before he would support a second ambulance.
“I want to look at how many first responder calls did we go out on, and how many did we miss; and, had we taken that second call, does it justify the expense for the ambulance and the personnel to operate it,” Villa said. “So, I would need to see positive numbers that would allow us to venture into a two-ambulance system.”