On county-wide EMS: ‘It certainly hasn’t been forgotten’ 

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

The sheriff’s office took over primary emergency medical services for New Scotland in October 2016. In September 2018, the sheriff took over full-time EMS duties from the former Voorheesville Area Ambulance Service. Last September, those services became full-time and the municipalities they served had to find ways to pay the bill. 

ALBANY COUNTY — With the county’s emergency medical services moving to full-time staff last fall, the towns and villages that pay for those services were sent scrambling to find a way to try to offset the cost spikes.

And now, with the coronavirus occupying nearly every facet of daily life coupled with an already-shortened state legislative session, a difficult task starts to look like an insurmountable one.

“It’s kind of a multi-faceted, multi-level project,” said New Scotland Supervisor Douglas LaGrange.

To start, there are the municipalities that receive part or all of their emergency services from the sheriff’s department, LaGrange said. So Albany County has to come up with a plan to put the sheriff’s EMS costs on the county’s tax roll instead of those costs continuing to be borne by the participating towns and villages of Albany County.

The county then has to ask the state legislature to pass a law allowing Albany County to set up a special taxing district so that only the residents of the municipalities receiving the special EMS benefit are paying for it — also allowing the cost to be spread across more users.

There’s a bill currently before the state legislature that would amend general municipal law to allow any county, city, town, or village to “establish a special district for the financing and operation of general ambulance services.”

Established in 1995, the sheriff’s department emergency medical services unit received authorization to operate a county-wide ambulance service in 2008.

According to the resolution passed at the time: “The sheriff indicated that the ambulance service would act as back-up to volunteer rescue squads struggling to muster the manpower to respond to emergency calls or unable to answer a second call and thus forced to rely on help from a neighboring rescue crew facing a volunteer shortage of its own.”

The Albany County Sheriff’s Office has been the primary emergency medical services provider, rather than back-up for volunteers, for New Salem and the area once covered by the former Voorheesville Area Ambulance Service since at least October 2016. The town also contracts with the Onesquethaw Volunteer Fire Company for EMS and transportation while the sheriff provides ALS. 

“When we started out [in 2012], we would just cover calls if they [VAAS] didn’t get a crew for a call,” Wood said in September 2018. “Then it slowly transitioned into us doing all the calls Monday through Friday, [6 a.m. to 6 p.m.], and, then finally it got to the point where they said, ‘You know, look, we can’t even get night or weekend crews anymore; we’re just going to shut down and let you guys take over.’”

When the Albany County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Medical Services program first started, Wood said, it had two paramedics and a supervisor; the sheriff now offers both advanced life support (ALS) and emergency medical services to New Scotland, Voorheesville, Berne, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville while Bethlehem and Coeymans use the sheriff for only ALS.

The volunteer Helderberg Ambulance Squad provides emergency medical service to most of Berne and about half of Knox; the Altamont Rescue Squad, also with some volunteers, covers the other part of Knox. The sheriff’s office provides ALS services to the town of Berne as well as ambulance back-up for Helderberg Ambulance, according to Captain Dennis Wood.

LaGrange said that he has been working with Bethlehem’s supervisor, David VanLuven, on the issue and that VanLuven had been working on a model resolution that each municipality could adopt. 

Additionally, LaGrange said, he was told by the county that the EMS conversation had begun with the county’s state delegation. 

But the worry is that a lot of things will get set aside because of restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus and because of the shortened state legislative session — since municipal budget time is just around the corner. LaGrange said that he starts looking for departmental requests for the town budget starting in June.

New Scotland’s combined ambulance and EMT costs went from about $429,000 last year to about $479,00 this year, a roughly 11.5-percent increase

The town as well as the other county-service-consuming municipalities avoided a 25-percent increase when Sheriff Craig Apple agreed to kick in another $150,000 to cover costs, revenue recovered from charges for ambulance calls.

But the real concern is 2022, when emergency-service costs could increase by another 30 percent, because the assumption is, by that point, a newly negotiated contract would be in place and the county’s EMT and paramedic wages will be brought in line with those of other local municipalities. 

“It certainly hasn’t been forgotten,” LaGrange said of a county-wide EMS program.

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