Colleen Castillo knew she didn’t have much time to get help after her water broke last month.
The expectant mother had just walked through the door of her Kelly Street home on Sept. 12. She called 911 for help, and within two minutes, a town paramedic was at her side with an ambulance crew from Rotterdam Emergency Medical Services Inc.
Two minutes later, her daughter Kiarra was born. She brought the month-old infant to Wednesday’s Rotterdam Town Board meeting to advocate for the nonprofit ambulance company and paramedics, but she choked up when she approached the podium.
Her aunt, Anne Godlewski, spoke instead, recounting how the trained crew helped her niece through labor under less than ideal circumstances.
“I know we have hard times and we all are looking to save money,” she told members of the Town Board. “Until it happens to you, to your mother, your father, a husband, a wife, a niece. It happened to us, and in under two minutes, Rotterdam ambulance was there for us.”
Godlewski spoke before a standing-room-only crowd gathered to comment on the town’s preliminary budget, which proposes to zero out the paramedic program. Town officials are contemplating a contract with Mohawk Ambulance, a for-profit company based in Schenectady, that would also effectively eliminate REMS after its contract with the town expires next month.
“If they hand [the contract] to Mohawk, we’re out of business,” said John Dybas, REMS president, after addressing the board. “If they stop dispatching us, they’ll starve us right out.”
REMS also offered to adopt the paramedics if the program is ultimately cut from the budget. Dean Romano, a member of the REMS Board of Directors and a former town paramedic, said the company is ready and willing to pick up the service from the town.
“Everything is ready to go; all we need is a date,” he said. “My question is, when can we talk.”
Pushed further by Dybas, town Supervisor Harry Buffardi said no firm decision about the ambulance contract has been reached. Though he wouldn’t commit to meeting with REMS, he said the town doesn’t have an agreement with Mohawk.
“We’re not committed to Mohawk,” he said.
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 more than $700,000. He has argued that the savings from losing the paramedics and the added revenue will be necessary to pay for projected retirement costs the town is facing in the near future.
The preliminary budget calls for $23.2 million in spending, including the general fund, highway fund and all special districts. General and highway fund spending totaling about $19.7 million will bring the town’s tax rate to $4.08 per $1,000 of assessed value for residential properties, an increase of 44 cents over last year’s tax rate.
New estimates reached since the release of the preliminary budget last month suggest the tax increase could be negligible. Buffardi estimates the town could save an additional $574,000 by switching its health insurance provider.
Buffardi agreed to leave the public comment period for the budget open until the board’s next meeting in two weeks.
Residents speaking Wednesday resoundingly supported keeping the paramedics and maintaining REMS as the town’s ambulance provider. Many questioned why the town was cutting the paramedics while affording thousands in raises to various elected and non-elected town workers.
“Eliminating the paramedics doesn’t reduce the size of the budget, if you look at it,” resident Jim Alderdice said. “It only increases some unjustified expenses while putting the safety and lives of the people in Rotterdam in danger.”
Many lauded the care they received from the paramedics and the REMS emergency medical technicians, who are predominantly town residents. And some openly questioned whether Mohawk would provide the same level of care they’ve come to depend on from the town’s existing emergency service.
Others questioned how the decision to eliminate the paramedics was reached. Stan Wilgocki, a part-time paramedic with the town, blasted the board for devising a plan to contract with Mohawk “in the cloak of secrecy” and questioned why they would want to abandon the level of care residents have come to know and expect.
“We can make a choice that’s correct — right for the budget and right for the residents,” he said.