Rotterdam’s three-decade-old paramedic service could fall prey to the budget ax, Supervisor Harry Buffardi acknowledged this week.
With the town facing yet another tough budget year, Buffardi said he’s exploring the impact of cutting the town-funded paramedic program and contracting for its emergency medical services with Mohawk Ambulance, a private company based out of Schenectady. The town’s contract with the nonprofit Rotterdam Emergency Medical Services Inc. expires in November, and Mohawk has agreed to provide both ambulance and paramedic service for the town at no cost.
“It wouldn’t cost anything and it would provide a higher level of service,” he said this week.
Buffardi estimates that eliminating the three full-time and 14 part-time paramedics — civilian workers paid through the Rotterdam Police Department’s budget — could save the town upward of $700,000. He said the savings would be critical, too, considering that the tax cap this year will limit any year-to-year budget increase to 1.66 percent.
“This whole thing saves hundreds of thousand of dollars a year, and I find that very attractive,” he said.
Buffardi said if the paramedic jobs are eliminated, Mohawk has already agreed to hire the full-time workers. The paramedics, however, are unionized under the town’s CSEA unit, while Mohawk’s workers are non-union.
Local CSEA President Conard Johnson said he was made aware of the potential loss of positions. Though he never likes to see positions cut, he said he understands the town’s tough budget position.
“Sometimes you have to make the hard choice when faced with difficult budget decisions,” he said.
Buffardi said the town’s service with REMS has also given him pause to consider a private contract. He questioned whether the ambulance company is living up to stipulations in its contract, which include having a certain number of crews available throughout the day and forwarding payments it collects from patients utilizing the paramedics for ALS — advanced life support — calls.
“We provide ALS service and if they don’t collect, we don’t get paid,” he said. “It’s costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as a result.”
But these assertions were disputed by John Dybas, the president of the ambulance company’s board of directors. He said REMS has always provided the specified number of ambulances and has forwarded all payments it has received through billing for ALS calls.
REMS bills insurers for BLS — basic life support — calls in which no town paramedic is involved, and it keeps that money for itself.
“We’ve been following the contract, and I don’t believe there’s any truth that we’ve not been following the contract,” he said.
Dybas said he’s been blindsided by Buffardi’s apparent move toward cutting the paramedics and contracting with Mohawk — which would collectively make it very difficult for the nonprofit organization to remain in business. He said Buffardi has never come to him with complaints about inadequate staffing or payments to the town.
“They haven’t talked to us about any of this,” he said.
Richard Brandt, Mohawk’s vice president of operations, directed all questions to a company spokesman, who could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Eliminating the paramedics has been a hot-button issue with residents in the past. The paramedics have played a crucial role in the delivery of emergency services throughout the town since being created as a division of the police department 33 years ago.
In 2004, then-Supervisor John Paolino, a Democrat, suggested cutting the paramedics for a contract with Mohawk to help reduce the town’s tax rate, only to face immense opposition and ultimately abandon his proposal. Some credited the issue for shifting the board’s majority from Democrat to Republican following the election that year.
Paolino now serves as a special assistant to the town comptroller’s office and has played a crucial role in Rotterdam’s financial planning. Buffardi has asked Paolino to crunch numbers and determine a more exact figure for the savings the town could realize through disbanding the paramedics.
The suggestion of ending the paramedic program has rankled Town Board member Robert Godlewski, a frequent critic of Buffardi. He said contracting with Mohawk will ultimately place a burden on those who rely on ambulance and paramedic services, since the fees charged to patients by the for-profit Mohawk are much more expensive.
“Who do you think is going to absorb all those fees? The people who use our ambulance service,” he said. “You shift that burden to the taxpayers because now you’re not going to be able to control those rates.”