Dan Minersagen beamed outside the meeting room at Town Hall on Wednesday evening, ecstatic that his job with Rotterdam Emergency Medical Services was being rescued from the brink.
Like many of his coworkers, the 39-year-old part-time paramedic feared that the Town Board was poised to hand a five-year contract to Mohawk Ambulance, something that would lead to a quick demise for his nonprofit employer. But when REMS emerged the winner, relief washed over Minersagen, who started his career with the company roughly two decades ago.
“This is more than just a job,” he said as dozens of his coworkers congratulated one another. “This is a family.”
Town Board members Robert Godlewski and Nicola DiLeva — both set to leave office at month’s end — were the first to vote in favor of awarding the contract to REMS. Then came Michael Viscusi, an often soft-spoken member of the board, who described the support residents offered the ambulance company in emails and phone calls they made to him in the weeks leading up to the vote.
“That kind of touched home,” he said, pausing briefly. “I vote yes.”
And with that, the packed meeting room erupted in uproarious cheers. James McPartlon, the vice president of Mohawk, whose family owns the Schenectady-based for-profit company, sat stone-faced in the front of the audience.
The vote followed more than an hour of public comment, in which many residents offered impassioned support for REMS. Though Mohawk did have several supporters in the crowd, including a number of the company’s uniformed workers, they seemed vastly outnumbered.
Supervisor Harry Buffardi and Deputy Supervisor Wayne Calder both opposed awarding the contract to REMS. Before casting his vote, Buffardi spoke of how acrimonious the selection process became and how he had faced biting criticism throughout the process and even had his home attacked on one occasion.
“I was not happy with the political exploitation of this issue,” he said, offering no details on what happened to his house.
Rich Brandt, Mohawk’s vice president of operations, expressed dismay over the town’s choice. He said Mohawk’s offer to provide two paramedic ambulances to the town and access to the company’s vast fleet was the best proposal submitted.
“We respect that decision, however, and respect what has been a transparent and public discussion over the past few weeks,” he said afterward. “We will of course continue to serve the town in a primary capacity through the rest of the year.”
Dean Romano, a paramedic now working with REMS and a member of its board of directors, lauded the board’s decision and said he looks forward to proving the ambulance company’s critics wrong. He also praised the outpouring of support he’s seen from the community since the company’s future became uncertain.
“We’re there to support them when they have a bad day, and they were definitely there to support us during our time of need,” he said.
The new contract brings to a close yet another chapter in the saga between the only two ambulance services allowed to operate in Rotterdam. Mohawk has periodically courted town officials with proposals since the financially strapped White Eagle Ambulance and Rotterdam Volunteer Emergency Medical Corps began suffering a shortage of volunteers during the late 1990s.
In 2003, Mohawk offered to serve Rotterdam for free, provided that the town agreed to disband both volunteer ambulance companies. The town instead decided to help the volunteer companies merge, which helped to create REMS later that year.
The merged entity started talking about setting up a tax district to support the newly formed company the following year. But the issue of a tax proved highly contentious and failed to advance for nearly five years.
In 2008, the IRS had imposed tax liens against REMS totaling nearly $250,000. Town officials subsidized the company for a while before finally getting the political will to put a taxing district up to a vote.
But the proposed tax district was resoundingly defeated by residents in December 2010. The company vowed to moved forward past the vote and pay off its debts.
In 2011, town officials again sought proposals from the two companies. After months of contention, the board ultimately voted to award a two-year contract to REMS.
The issue of the emergency medical services seemed to be resolved until September, when Buffardi eliminated the town’s paramedic program from his 2014 budget proposal. In cutting the program, he said the town would save an estimated $700,000 needed to offset rising taxes and other expenses.
Prior to September, REMS was able to provide only basic life support services. With the looming elimination of the town paramedics, the company quickly sought the certification it needed to provide advanced life support services on calls.
Buffardi and Calder both doubted the company’s ability to achieve the full approval it needed to keep paramedics aboard its ambulances. As a result, Police Chief James Hamilton instructed town dispatchers to send Mohawk’s ambulances to all emergency calls in mid-November.
No longer the town’s primary ambulance provider, REMS was facing a grim future. Call volume since November has dropped by roughly 80 percent, leading the company to furlough workers and temporarily shut down its second station on Princetown Road.
The contract gives the company a new lease on life. Now, Romano said REMS will be looking to hire.
“We’re going to be adding staff,” he said.